“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.”