“The Country of Ice Cream Star” is written from the point of view of a 15 year old girl whose name is taken from a Friendly’s restaurant sign and set in a dystopian future where everyone is afflicted with a disease which the narrator refers to as posies. This affliction causes them to die around the age of 20. To be presented with a civilization of children makes me wonder how influenced author Sandra Newman was by “Lord of the Flies” – especially because at one point a character named Piglet appears. Ice Cream lives with children similar to herself and they call themselves Sengles. They inhabit a rural area in what was Massachusetts by hunting, stealing and “parlaying” mostly peaceably with neighbouring tribes. She feels that she “Ain’t be the hero of my mind. Ain’t even normal made.” Yet, motivated by the illness of her beloved brother Driver, she’s drawn into a quest to find a cure for her people’s terminal disease which eventually finds her raised to a deified status in New York City which is now called C. de las Marias and run by a new sect of Christianity. She becomes an instrumental part of a war which has been raging for some eighty years and destroyed much of civilization.
To be honest, if I hadn’t agreed to be on the shadow jury for the Baileys Prize I would have given up reading “The Country of Ice Cream Star” about 100 pages into it. But I’m so glad I stuck with it and read to the end of this long novel. This is a very challenging read that inspires and frustrates in equal measure. It’s difficult not just for the unique voice of the narrator who speaks in a new kind of lyrical dialect which Newman says in an interview with Foyles that she “developed from African-American English.” It also features numerous fast-paced battle scenes. Action like this is difficult enough to capture in more standard kinds of fiction because a certain rhythm must be achieved in the narrative to effectively convey detail alongside key events. On top of all this action is a complicated new-world order that has an intricate social structure and political make-up. There is also a large cast of characters, most of whom I found difficult to keep track of because their names are more often like nick names than traditional names. Combining all these factors meant I often felt disorientated right up until the end. I was fascinated, but confused.
What really drew me along and kept me with it, was the assured power of Ice Cream’s voice. It’s playful, poetic and impressively consistent for such a long novel. Where I think this novel shines the most are in more private moments where she becomes more contemplative. Because they die so young, it’s necessary for the children to become sexually mature as soon as they go through puberty. She chillingly remarks at one point: “Be almost old. Ain’t like to get no enfant when I be sixteen or seventeen. They never going to know me. I can die before they talking words.” The pressure to continue the race so swiftly has created a fascinatingly compressed form of passion where the dynamics of love are more intensely felt. Speaking of her most intense affair: “Ain’t words for what this be. Be something make all honor small. No life nor honesty remain, and every strangeness, every stopping pain, become bellesse. We speaking words like love, like you, that ain’t mean nothing. Words waste in air. Nor ain’t knowledge of this losten hour, is gold you cannot see. Cannot find out what it been. Yet this blind thing be more real than life.” It’s a relatable kind of feeling when language breaks down because of the heat of the emotion that’s being experienced.
Newman captures so well how there is no time for fooling with tender kisses in times of war. Coupling is feverish and necessary, but there are also feelings seeping out the sides: “Can see his face exhilarate and need. Feel how his kiss will be, and how we struggle on the floor, our knifen-fist of loving war. Yo, tears come vicious to my eyes. Be like a death somehow, be like my love itself go weep.” It’s entirely appropriate that metaphors of sex are mixed with death because in this world the two are so closely paired together. Here she perfectly encapsulates the raw reality of a teenage sensibility in a world gone mad: “We cling together with no words, until our scary silence be another nakedness. Is loving with no fight, is helpless. Every touch be words insane – and be the only truthful words I known. Be like a perfect name.”
Curiously, standard English as we know it is a foreign language to Ice Cream. To her: “sleeper English. Some words comprehend, but nothing weave into a sentence meaning.” She feels as alienated by the English which has survived from the past as many of us are in the act of reading this novel. I wonder if this is making a commentary on the experience of different races living within Western society who have their own dialect and often find themselves separated from mainstream culture because of this. In quite a subtly powerful way this novel is very much about race. The surviving population of America is black with a scattering of white people who are referred to as roos. One of the most fantastically realized character, the insidious Anselm who is a high-ranking apostle in C. de las Marias remarks: “There are feelings about white people here. You could call it superstition, or you might just say it’s prejudice. Anyhow, it’s been a long and thorny history.” At another point it’s stated: “‘You don’t understand how whites are regarded here,’ Pedro say in teaching voice. ‘In our Bible, they’re described as hell’s offspring, a race of giant scorpions.’” The schism of race relations in America is still very much alive even in this future when the native white population has died out. Still invaders (in this case white Russians) come to dominate the black population by tricking them into taking up arms or becoming sexually enslaved in a way which eerily mixes elements of colonial history.
Clearly, this is a novel much more sophisticated and intelligent than any book jacket summary could convey. I wonder if this is part of the reason why this novel hasn’t been more widely read. Also, the basic elements which make up “The Country of Ice Cream Star” add up to sound like any of the slew of dystopian young-adult novels that currently saturate the market. This is most definitely a literary novel with fantastic ambition. It’s assuredly led by a confident and complex narrator unlike any that has been written before. This is a character willing to travel into the darkest places of life and do what is necessary to save the brother she loves. She ominously vows “If evil can save Driver; I will love all filth.” This novel gets very grimy and uncomfortable in the realisation of what a war run by teenagers would look like. Yet it also provides revelation in Ice Cream’s subtly of feeling and her comically irreverent take on the dominant establishment.