Dystopian-themed novels for young adults seem to be flooding the market these days, and they can look very similar on the surface. So, a title with appealing protagonists, that stands out by offering a unique, thought-provoking premise, is a delight to find. What's Left of Me by Kat Zhang is just such a book.
As a first novel, it is not without a problem or two, yet the flaws are easy to forgive when measured against a truly captivating plot, and a book that raises interesting ethical, social, and philosophical issues. Even those who do not normally seek out dystopian fiction will appreciate the compelling story and rich material for discussion.
The world described in What's Left of Me is much like our own except for this: Every child is born with two distinct personalities, or "souls." One soul is naturally dominant while the other is weaker and shows decreasing control over the body as the child grows. By age ten, the weaker soul usually disappears and the stronger remains, a process called "settling." In the novel, children whose souls do not settle are called "hybrids," and, once discovered, are taken away and never seen again.
In the novel, 15-year old protagonists Addie and Eva are hybrids - their souls do not settle. Addie gains full control over their body, yet Eva does not die. By age 12, to protect them both, Addie must pretend that Eva is gone, for if their "hybrid" status is discovered, they know they are doomed.
Outside of what happens directly to Addie/Eva, Zhang provides very little information about the world that is the setting for the story. She does not explain why hybrids are considered mentally unstable anarchists, or how the two-souled births began. We learn early on that "the Americas" have been allied in a war against hybrids in other countries for 150 years, but we are not told why this war began. Perhaps these questions will be answered in the sequel, yet the dearth of supporting information left me feeling ungrounded.
What's Left of Me is told through the voice of Eva, the weaker of the two hybrid souls. This first-person narration is a logical choice given the insular world of the characters. It is also impressive as first-person narration can be difficult to execute well, especially for the novice writer. Here, Zhang has to negotiate additional limitations (for example, Eva can only see through Addie's eyes and hear through her soul-sister's ears). Eva constantly narrates Addie's movements and her own thoughts, alternating between singular and plural. This occasionally makes for some odd grammatical constructions: "Our cereal stuck in our throat. Addie dumped the rest in the trash. When she went back upstairs to brush our teeth, I stirred enough to stare at our reflection in the bathroom mirror. Addie was looking, too."
Eva's narration allows the reader to get to know both girls in a way that would not have been possible if Addie, the dominant soul, had been the storyteller. Addie does not often hide her feelings, but Eva has suffered quietly in her longing to be a complete person. By making her the narrator Zhang has empowered Eva to give voice to her pain, and she does so, poignantly. Eva's voice is sometimes that of a mature and calming matron, sometimes an angry and frustrated child. But her voice is true to who she is: a teenager searching for an independent identity.
Fans of dystopian fiction will certainly want to get their hands on What's Left of Me, but other readers will find much to enjoy as well. Zhang adds just the merest hint of romance that does not distract from the main action. I believe readers 13 and up, will enjoy this book, which is more than just a tense, edge-of-your-seat adventure; it is also a moving and thought-provoking drama, with broad appeal. With its exploration of the meaning of identity; the role of propaganda in society; and the allegiance to family and government; What's Left of Me provides ample fodder for discussion.
This review was originally published in October 2012, and has been updated for the August 2013 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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