I was taking a break from YA dystopias and then my library got this book and I went OH WELL. The premise is that everyone is born with two souls in one body, and by age six or so the “recessive” personality will have faded. Sometimes it takes longer, but if a child hasn’t “settled” by ten then usually the government hauls them off to a mental institution. The parents, let me be clear, are complicit in this: They’ve been conditioned to believe that their children are “sick,” and they will sign anything they’re asked to in the interests of “fixing” them. Because this is a dystopia there’s a pervasive atmosphere of fear – people are encouraged to spy on their neighbors in case they’re secretly hybrids. A hybrid is an adult body that harbors two souls. What’s Left of Me is Book 1 of The Hybrid Chronicles, and you guys I am SO EXCITED for the rest.
The reason I was taking a break from the subgenre in the first place is that I’m tired of it. I’m tired of specious love triangles and I’m tired of watching smart, scared kids scrabbling ineffectually against a repressive government, succeeding largely by dumb luck. These two things – love triangles and repressive governments – are not unrelated, by the way, and it’s easy to get the balance wrong. Not just for authors – for readers too. If, for instance, you read The Hunger Games as Team Gale vs. Team Peeta then I’m sorry, you’re doing it wrong. Here’s how you do it right: recognize that the personal is political, that “Which boy do I like more?” is a question that cannot be separated from the problematic configuration of the society the protagonist inhabits. As far as this goes it’s safe to say that Kat Zhang has done it right.
The narrator of What’s Left of Me, Eva, is not supposed to exist anymore. Her other self, Addie, has always been dominant, and at the painfully late age of twelve Addie was declared “settled.” By then there had been an interminable sequence of doctor’s visits, their parents begging for just a little bit more time. Now Addie and Eva are fifteen. Nobody knows that Eva’s still there; she hasn’t been able to move a muscle of her own volition for years. They’ve moved to a new town where Addie can have a fresh start. That’s where they meet social outcast Hally and her brother Devon.
SPOILER ALERT Hally and Devon are sekritly hybrids too! They’re also half-Asian, which is why they’re social outcasts, because the USA has become (was always?) a super xenophobic place. One of the things I like about this book is that it explores themes like American exceptionalism using science-fictional mechanisms. Apparently, the Revolutionary War was fought not because we didn’t want to pay taxes to the British but because we wanted to eradicate hybridism. Accordingly we killed the hybrids in our midst, and the remaining gene pool consisted of people who would shed their recessive souls as children. As Eva and Addie eventually discover, however, this is not the whole story, nor even the real story. It’s a YA dystopia so you know the authority figures have been lying about everything under the sun. The real story involves drugs designed to suppress the recessive soul, drugs slipped into childhood vaccinations. The real story is that the rest of the world, far from shunning the USA and its radical anti-hybrid policies, is bankrolling the drugs. Which is insane because as far as we know the rest of the world is all hybrid. So I’m sure we’ll find out more in subsequent books, but for now I’m really glad that Zhang has challenged the narrative of American isolationism = good. In a lot of post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction it’s like the rest of the world is “Here Be Dragons,” we don’t know or care what happened to them after the zombies came or whatever, but Zhang doesn’t do that.
This is a really emotional book. What I mean by that is you won’t be falling in love with the fancy syntax or anything. As a connoisseur of fancy syntactical edifices, I admit that I’m sometimes disappointed, but not this time. I think that the choice to make Eva the narrator was an excellent one, as we really get to see the difference in her and Addie’s personalities. Addie is the “stronger” one – louder, more driven, more decisive. Occasionally a conflict flares up between them and while it’s clear that Eva is sometimes resentful of Addie’s dominance and Addie feels guilty for it, it’s also clear that they share a bond that is more than capable of weathering such differences. So Addie and Eva are strongly developed characters. Hally is less developed beyond “loudmouthed BFF of protagonist who gets them both involved in dangerous situations.” Hally’s brother Devon is the love interest. Or rather, Devon’s other soul, Ryan. When Ryan and Eva fall for each other it makes things awkward for Addie and Devon, who cannot after all step into the next room to give them privacy. The romance is hard to negotiate, and this is what I meant about the personal being political – if Addie and Eva had been brought up in a context where hybridity was normal, there would have been protocols for this kind of thing. Instead they will have to fumble their way towards love.
As successful as the centuries-old campaign against hybrids has been, there are fissures in American society. The “vaccination” program cannot alter the fundamental fact that hybrids are not “other” – they are us. Each and every person is born sharing their body with another soul, and that experience leaves an indelible impression on them. That is where the fissure lies – not in the rogue hybrids the FBI is so intent on catching, but in the souls of “normal,” healthy human beings. Twice in the text Eva identifies such pressure points: Once when her little brother is undergoing kidney dialysis for a chronic health condition, he asks her if he’ll get to be with Nathaniel when he dies. Nathaniel was his other soul. The second time, Eva/Addie is pleading with a sympathetic doctor at the hospital where she’s been institutionalized. Eva, Addie, and their cohort of hybrid children need this doctor’s help to effect their escape. In desperation she asks the doctor, “What was her name? The soul you lost?” and that’s when the doctor relents.