BOOK REVIEW: The Boundless Sublime by Lili Wilkinson
Allen & Unwin
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell
When you lose someone.
Lose. People say that a lot, when someone dies. I’m sorry for your loss.
It makes it sound careless, as if my brother were a door key or umbrella, left behind on the train.
And the worst part is, they’re right. I was careless. It was me. My loss. I lost him.
After the recent loss of her little brother, Ruby Galbraith is floundering, and her mum is having an even harder time functioning.
She stopped going to work and answering the phone, and pulled the curtains of her sorrow tightly around herself. She sat all day in the living room, staring at the TV and smoking cigarette after cigarette. Sometimes I’d come home from school and find her, vacant-eyed, with a perfect cylinder of as protruding from pale lips. I’d speak to her, tell her about my day and the outside world, and it would take minutes for the cylinder to tremble and collapse, spilling ash down the front of her dressing-gown.
She doesn’t talk about how she’s coping with anyone – with the school counselor, with her friends, with her mum – and the only way she can shut her brain off enough to sleep is by sneaking into nightclubs and dancing until she is exhausted.
I welcomed the dark, frenetic facelessness of the dance floor. Nobody stared at me with sympathetic frowns wrinkling their brows. Nobody offered understanding hugs. Nobody shifted their weight uncomfortably as they tried to work out what to say. On the dance floor, I wasn’t Ruby Jane Galbraith. I was just a body, jumping and writhing with all the other bodies. I wasn’t anybody at all.
And then she meets Fox, he sees her, he understands the dark hole that she finds herself in, and he gives her hope enough to start to pull herself back out.
A jolt somewhere inside me made my knees weak. It had been a long time since I’d felt anything. For the briefest of moments, a spark flared in the darkness.
The boy’s eyes were soft and brown, and full of concern and… recognition. I had the oddest feeling that he’d been waiting for me. That we’d been waiting for each other.
‘He’s looking at you,’ said Minah. ‘The hot wild angel boy is looking at you.’
But he’s only in town for a short time, and has to return to the Institute where he lives… He asks Ruby to go with him. He’s not ready to lose her already, and she’s not ready to let go of the one person who has made her feel… anything since her brother died.
Maggie elbowed me in the ribs. ‘You’re going to hear some crazy stuff over the next few days,’ she said, her voice low. ‘Some of it is pretty extreme. Just… go with it. It’s easier than making a fuss. I find it helps to understand it all as a kind of metaphor for life, you know? It’s like the Bible. All the woo-woo is there to help us to process those ideas.’
‘Right,’ I said, feeling suddenly nervous.
So she ends up at the Institute of the Boundless Sublime, where a man who likes everyone to call him Daddy and claims he’s thousands of years old gives her a new name and tells her she’s extraordinary.
The Scintilla will come and light the way for us. The Institute of the Boundless Sublime will rise above all. The Quintus Septum will be vanquished, along with all their pathetic meat-followers. We shall rule the planet, gods of light and science. You, my children, will receive riches and power beyond your wildest imaginings.
And I will be everyone’s Daddy.
There are all kinds of new rules to learn and the institute – about food, and possessions, and romantic feelings – and what might seem, at first, to be a gathering of like-minded people working towards a common goal, is quickly revealed to be something rather more sinister.
Daddy says they’re free to leave at any time, but does he really mean it?
It pains me to give this book such a low rating. A book by an Aussie author, a plot with so much potential… but it just fell short.
This could be down to a few things:
- This reader’s expectations:
This was one of my more highly anticipated releases for the year. Maybe the expectations were too high.
- It came after Minnow Bly:
The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly was one of the most talked about books of last year, and a lot of readers found the hype well-earned. That was an unflinching, horrific, but also uplifting story, and this one, in comparison, was a lot less emotional. Also, when compared to Minnow Bly, the horrors in this book seemed downright tame.
- The main character was too malleable and not at all street smart:
I hate to harp on the comparison, but when reading a YA book about a subject like this, one can’t help but think about others that cover the same topic.
The main character in this story lived in the real world for 16-17 years before joining the Institute of the Boundless Sublime, and yet she has way less backbone than Minnow, who was raised in her book’s respective cult from a very young age (around five, if memory serves).
Things had to be repeated multiple times before Ruby latched on to them, sometimes three or more times beyond the point where the reader got it, and then Ruby had to spell it out for the reader, even though they had well and truly figured it out by that point.
Now, there are a lot of really great things about this book… It covers grief, orthorexia(a medical condition in which the sufferer systematically avoids specific foods that they believe to be harmful), and the perils of taking things on face value. The very fact that it wasn’t quite as shocking as that other buzzed-about cult book does mean that it would be more suitable for a slightly younger teenage readership, especially as most of the bad things are either eluded to, or happen “off screen”.
The opening chapters were brilliant at making the grief positively visceral, but the cult-based events were mostly par for the course in terms of cults in fiction, up until the last 50 or so pages. It was also a little hard to feel a connection with Ruby beyond the opening, grief-filled chapters. As soon as Ruby got in with the cult and was properly brain-washed, she seemed to think she knew better than everyone else, and made a point of bossing around those sublimates she thought weren’t as pure as she but who had been there longer than her, and it got very annoying very quickly, especially given that she had outside-world knowledge from not so long before that. She was seventeen, but she acted like a self-righteous thirteen-year-old.
There were certain things that seemed important in the reading, but which were never resolved, such as the “people get thirsty” line – the only response Ruby is ever given when she asks why they hand out water bottles. The cardinal elements are mentioned often, as is their over-consumption of salt, but reasons for Zosimon convincing them to do these things in the first place were never forthcoming. And then there’s that transcript towards the end which read, laughably, like The Sunscreen Song . The sentiment behind this was a good one, and I think, again, this comes together to form a good message for those coming of age now who never heard that song on the radio, even if it is a tad cheesy for those of us who have.
Ultimately, maybe the fact that it is written for a younger readership will mean that those put off by the graphic scenes in Minnow Bly will be able to enjoy this one more, and the immaturity of the main character won’t grate as much against younger readers as it does this young-adult-novel-loving grownup.
Some other stuff you might dig
About the Author: