I have a right little firecracker of a story for you today, gratefully received from Allen & Unwin for review. The Boundless Sublime is a new YA novel by Aussie author Lili Wilkinson, dealing with grief, abandonment, love, vulnerability and coercion. I was in two minds about this one while reading it, but on reflection, I think Wilkinson has crafted a clever story here that is most believable because to many of us, it won’t be believable at all. I will explain this contradictory statement, but first, here is the blurb from Goodreads:
Ruby Jane Galbraith is empty. Her family has been torn apart and it’s all her fault.
The only thing that makes sense to her is Fox – a gentle new friend who is wise, soulful and clever, yet oddly naive about the ways of the world. He understands what she’s going through and he offers her a chance to feel peace. Fox belongs to a group called the Institute of the Sublime – and Ruby can’t stay away from him. So she is also drawn in to what she too late discovers is a terrifying secretive community that is far from the ideal world she expected.
Can Ruby find the courage to escape? Is there any way she can save Fox too? And is there ever really an escape from the far-reaching influence of the Institute of the Sublime?
A gripping YA novel about an ordinary girl who is unsuspectingly inducted into a secretive modern-day cult.
Having sat on the shelf of a university undergrad completing a major in Studies of Religion, many moons ago, I have already had an interesting taste of the research that has gone into cults, or new religious movements, as they are sometimes called. I didn’t realise until I’d seen some reviews of this one that it featured cultish content, but once I did know, I was a bit sceptical as to how the author was going to make this an engaging story without it becoming cheesy and unrealistic.
The book opens on a pretty dour note: Ruby is living in a sort of suspended time with her mother after a tragic accident that caused the permanent separation of their family. Ruby’s mother is practically catatonic, Ruby can’t find meaning in doing the everyday things like going to school and life generally seems to be a pointless, meaningless black hole. It is from this viewpoint that Ruby interprets the unexpected kindness of Fox, a young man handing out free bottles of water on the street. She sees him as beautiful, in an almost otherworldly way, and is drawn to his naivety and his seemingly solid grip on his world.
From here, it is only a matter of time – and the painless severing of a few social and familial ties – until Ruby is subsumed into Fox’s social circle and into a community of “like-minded” souls, and the “cult” aspect of the story really begins in earnest.
This book felt to me like it had a few distinctive parts. Initially, we see the surly, disconnected and generally unlikable Ruby who is so focused on the guilt, grief and chaos of her life that any other viewpoint seems laughably untenable. Soon after this we see a bit of insta-love or at least, infatuation, as Ruby becomes consumed with thoughts of Fox and sees him as an almost-saviour from her meaningless existence. Then comes doubting Ruby, who questions her new situation yet lacks the will to act in her own best interests. I won’t say any more than that because one of the best parts of the book, I felt, is the fact that Ruby goes through so many changes in thought process and personality, that the atmosphere of the story is constantly in flux and we just aren’t sure what will happen next.
A number of reviewers have noted that parts of the story seem so ridiculous and unlikely that they couldn’t suspend their disbelief in order to engage with the stories. On one level, I can certainly see where they are coming from, becuase there were times during the book that I too was thinking, “AS IF!” I think that in order to appreciate it fully, one has to come at the story from the point of view that none of us thinks that we would ever be “dumb” enough to get caught up in a cult. Even Ruby has her doubts and eye-roll moments at the beginning. Part of the power of cults is that recruitment relies on individuals who are vulnerable, possibly suffering under mental illness or at least mental stress, and in a social position from which it is easy (or even preferable) to disengage – and Ruby fits the bill on each of these counts. Add to that the fact that she is a teenager, without fully developed reason centres in her brain, and the thought of a clever, attractive young girl getting caught up in such a community – and then being unable to find a way to leave it – isn’t such a stretch.
This isn’t meant to be a factual book about cults – it is fiction, for young adults, with crazy romance, teen angst and all of the other things that typify YA, so in that regard I feel I can cut it some slack in the unbelievability stakes. If you are prepared to come at it with a bit of an open mind and the knowledge that some events will seem a unlikely, then you will find an unusual and pacey tale featuring action, philosophical debate, love, betrayal, crazy gurus, bald-headed children and a second half that pelts toward the finish.
Give it a crack and let me know what you think!
Until next time,