Sour Fruit by Eli Allison is a dystopian speculative fiction novel that follows both the traditional sense of dystopian and modern sense dystopian whilst causing huge amounts of trouble. The traditional sense of dystopian novels involve a utopian society in which there is an unseen but fundamental flaw. Examples of these books include things like 1984 by George Orwell and We by Mikhail Bakhtin. The modern sense of dystopian is where the society functions overall as something that is in direct opposition to utopian ideas, excepting for the select few who had huge amount of power, money, and influence. Examples of this include The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and some of the pieces from The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury.
Sour Fruit follows a girl named Onion who is not yet an official citizen of Britain but soon will be, provided she can keep her head down in her orphanage until she comes of age. However, she gets kidnapped and is slated to be sold to a skin trader. What makes it worse is that she is given into the care of a woman named Rhea, who is not only a Void (a non-citizen), but also in serious debt and an adult. For the next three days, Onion must stick with Rhea or be blown up. Then, she will be sold to the skin trader and life as she knows it will be over. Obviously, Onion needs to escape. But she must also learn to navigate the society of the Voids and figure out her way out of this armpit of the city, Kingston. Onion has nothing to help her except her wits, her very loud complaints, and whatever she can manipulate Rhea into doing. She tries to navigate this new world and returned the old one, but not before discovering that not everything is as it seems. Sometimes, you don’t get to choose your life and must make do with what you’ve got.
This story is narrated from a first person perspective, spoken in Onion’s voice, and it does take a minute or two to actually get into the rhythm of the story. The language itself is very much idiomatic and is also spoken from a teenager’s mouth to the readers at large. But once you get into the rhythm, it is extremely difficult to stop reading. Onion is an extraordinarily unreliable narrator. Most first-person narrations are unreliable, but I think this story manages to take that to a level that is not often seen. There is a whole heck of a lot more going on then what Onion tells you and you have to read between the lines very deeply to figure it out. This means that, for me at least, most of what is going on for the story is a complete mystery. This is perfectly alright though, because it is also a complete mystery to Onion. As she learns, we learn.
This narration style is a very good means of exploring Kingston and the society of the Voids without feeling like there was information that you were missing or not understanding, because the narrator also did not understand and did not have the information. This is a very good means of learning about the world, which was very well thought out, without that sometimes overbearing exposition that explains every little detail to an audience that probably already understands.
For being a book that is mostly focused on the story most of the time, there are a lots of deeper questions that are asked, which also fulfils the other part of the dystopian novel. This role is to question aspects of society, to discover flaws within the world, and to explore the consequences or solutions to those problems. This book largely questions perception of other people based on situations that are impossible for someone to change — or if not impossible then incredibly difficult. These things include social background and all of the aspects that are involved in social capital, such as education, the class in which you were born, as well as access to opportunity. This book manages to question all of that through Onion, who is perhaps one of the people furthering the problem. She is incredibly biased, forms opinions based on very little that is grounded in reality, and is more than happy to shoot her mouth off to anyone with ears. Onion is all-around offensive, and often ignorant. And yet, she is a very sympathetic character.
As far as characters go, Onion’s unfortunate companion, Rhea, is definitely my favorite. If Rhea were perhaps any different, she would be nothing more than a creature of circumstance. However, Rhea has managed to remain a surprisingly positive person given the fact that her life really, really, really sucks. She has certain, perhaps, old-fashioned sensibilities about the world that seem almost out of place in the society of the Voids. It is these sensibilities that make Rhea something more than a creature of circumstance. She fights circumstance. Sometimes she doesn’t do it very well, but she keeps fighting. And she’s also just quite entertaining.
The whole situation comes to a head in perhaps the last fifty pages of the story. The action definitely picks up in pace and things move almost too quickly for Onion — and the readers — to follow. This quick pace makes it a little bit difficult to visualize what’s going on, but part of that is okay. We have had a decent amount of time to process the situation before all of these events, so everything makes sense. The characters and the readers do not have much in a way of downtime to process what is going on and therefore the end feels very intense. The very last scene was a little bit confusing, until I realised that this book is book one of a trilogy. (Honestly, that makes me feel a whole lot better, because there were so many questions that I really wanted answered and had no idea when they would be.)
Be forewarned: this is a very dark book for its genre. A lot of speculative fiction/dystopian novels deal with the darker aspects of society, but rarely do they actually go into graphic detail like this one does. This reads almost like a dark fantasy, which describes the macabre thoroughly. If you are not keen on that sort of thing, give this book a miss. Also, there is rather a lot of cussing, so be aware of that. Both of these things work together, though, to create this flawed vision of the world that Onion has and to really press home the issues that are being discussed.
Overall, I think Sour Fruit is one of the best books I have read this year and I am eagerly awaiting book two. And by eagerly awaiting, I mean I may or may not be pestering the author ever so slightly. But she’s actually great fun to talk with, so I think it’s okay.