I am very excited today to bring you my Read-it-if review of The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon – my second five star review of the week. It’s been a very fortuitous seven days, I must admit. I received a digital copy of this book from Hachette Australia via Netgalley. Thanks!
So I know I may have mentioned once or twice that I was over dystopian novels. Even the best of us can sometimes be wrong, however, and The Word Exchange is just the kind of dystopian/apocalyptic tome that I will happily let slip through the net. Why? Because it’s the thinking person’s dystopian.
The plot has a lot of twists and the character relationships and reveals are quite complex, so there’s not a lot I can elaborate on without risking spoilification, but let me have a go at a synopsis. In a not too distant future, the written word has become somewhat anachronistic. People are attached (in some cases literally!) to their “Memes” – devices worn like a headpiece, that allow instant access to the internet, do the job of a phone, complete financial transactions and even make intuitive decisions for their wearers based on stored prefences. For instance, if a wearer starts to think it’s time to leave a party, their Meme may automatically call a cab or list the quickest train times and routes home. Written language is restricted only to very specific professions and those with a nostalgic streak.
On the night Ana’s father, a key figure in the production of the latest (and final) edition of the North American Dictionary of the English Language goes missing, a sequence of events are set into motion that could result in the end of language as we know it. As the shady business empire Synchronic Inc promotes a new site that allows the general public to create their own words and definitions and sell them through an online language marketplace, some individuals begin to display symptoms of aphasia and fears of a highly contagious Word Flu begin to spread. For Ana, her friend Bart, and most of the people they love, things are about to get out of hand in ways no one could ever have imagined.
Read it if:
* you believe that your picture should be listed in the dictionary beside the definition for the word “anti-hipster”
* you denounce ereaders at every opportunity in favour of the glorious scent and texture of print
* you always carry stamps in your wallet, you have never owned a mobile phone, your computer has a stylish, modern, walnut-laminate veneer, and you are reading this post via an internet server powered by a hand crank
* you prophesy that the reduction of our rich language into clichéd acronyms such as LOL, OMG and FTW can only end in the destruction of life as we know it
As I said, this isn’t the kind of book that I frequently read, and it took me a few chapters to get my head around what was happening. The book is told from shifting points of view, between Ana and her friend Bart, and initially I found Bart’s chapters to be hard going due to the character’s idiosynchratic voice. This eased up considerably when the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of Ana’s father gather momentum, and more details about the future world become apparent. Ana’s chapters include footnotes, for reasons which will become clear at the end of the story, but as I was reading this on a Kindle, often the notes appeared three or four pages past their related sentences and I found it mightily distracting trying to flick back and forth between screens. Luckily the story was engaging enough that I felt that the flicking was a necessary evil in order to get to the end.
Being someone who reads a lot of young adult fiction, it was refreshingly different reading a book that is well and truly nestled within adult fiction – I found the complexity of the storyline a real drawcard and I enjoyed trying to piece together the loyalties of the characters, figuring out who was working with who and on which side of villainy various characters fell. The best thing about this book is undoubtedly its unique take on the concept of apocalypse (which has really been done to death, at least in the YA market) and the fact that the author wasn’t afraid to imagine situations that really make the reader question how they relate to, and use, language and technology on a day to day basis.
The book has an atmosphere of distrust and dis-ease that slowly overwhelms the characters and seeped out into my cosy little reading nook. With the Memes in the story having such a starring role in how things pan out, I did feel a bit creeped out that I was reading on a digital device, rather than in good, old-fashioned, safe print!
This certainly isn’t a light beach read, but while the concepts are fairly heavy, they are balanced perfectly with action and enough mystery to keep the reader working to click the pieces into place before the narrator does. I recommend The Word Exchange to anyone who’s looking for a read to make them sit up and pay attention – and creep them out enough to take an internet-holiday for a few days!
The Word Exchange is due to be published in early April…but I’d preorder if I were you, in case the Word Flu breaks out in the meantime.
Until next time,