David Stahler Jr., Truesight (2004, HarperCollins)
In one of my favourite books as a youth (well, as a pre-teen, really), Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle In Time, there is a chapter where the main character, Meg, attempts to describe the sense of sight to Aunt Beast, an alien creature born without it. Of course, as Aunt Beast's species has no concept of this sense, poor Meg fails miserably. Trying to explain the concept of seeing, of perceiving objects and colours and realities with the complex structures of our eyes to a being who has never experienced it in their life would be a difficult task for anyone. In his ambitious debut novel, Truesight, David Stahler Jr. attempts to do just that.
The story takes place in Harmony, a human colony on a distant planet. What differentiates the inhabitants of Harmony from those of other colonies and cities is that every human being is genetically engineered to be blind. In fact, the people collectively worship the concept of Truesight, the idea that their lack of sight prevents them from being shallow and materialistic, and thus makes them morally "purer" then the Seers, the outsiders. For their community to work properly, the members of Harmony have adopted a "group before the individual" philosophy, and their lives are a series of strict routines, schedules, and regulations.
Young Jacob, the main character, is relatively comfortable with the rigid lifestyle of Harmony, but his gal pal Delaney feels smothered by the peaceful structure and is beginning to see her blindness as a handicap instead of a blessing. Confused by Delaney's distress, Jacob experiences terrible headaches, and in one of the many ironies of the novel, the boy who just wants to fit in receives the gift that Delaney so desperately desires. Miraculously, Jacob begins to see. Soon after, Delaney vanishes, having apparently committed suicide. Here is where the novel begins to pick up. In a society where the blind members of Harmony are seen as "pure" and morally upright, once Jacob becomes a Seer he discovers the true corruption that has rotted his community from within. The blindness of the colony has, in a sense, isolated its members, as every person has their own moments of moral weakness that forever go unnoticed to the rest of society.
I really wanted to enjoy this novel, but despite the original and creative concept, the execution was, sadly, very predictable. Anyone who has read Lois Lowry's The Giver will recognize several similarities between the two books and will subsequently be able to determine what happens at the end without too much trouble. I began to wonder if both Stahler and Lowry had discovered a handbook titled How to Write a Thought-Provoking Young Adult Book which had pointers like the following:
Hero is vague and undecided about the future.
Hero gains new awareness.
Hero's new awareness thus makes him an outsider.
Hero discovers a physical attraction towards an oblivious community member of the opposite sex.
Hero has a silly male friend who is mischievous on the outside, but a follower on the inside.
Hero becomes aware of the moral failings of his parents.
The heavy use of irony in the novel does separate it somewhat from Lois Lowry's masterpiece, but some of the characters are so similar that it was an experience akin to watching a young director's modern remake of a classic film. Basically the same, with a few new plot twists and added details to keep it relatively fresh. The author started out with a really good idea, but in the end, the message he delivers is nothing new.
Also, David Stahler Jr makes the mistake of creating a new world, and then giving it absolutely no credit whatsoever. He creates this society of capable, self-sufficient sightless people, who turn out to be as vulnerable as kittens when compared to the now-seeing Jacob. During one scene, a farm worker is mangled by malfunctioning equipment and nearly bleeds to death while his comrades harvest the crops only meters away from him, and only through Jacob's intervention is he saved. As well, Jacob's advantage of sight lends him an unrealistic invincibility, as he is now able to get away with just about anything while the rest of his neighbours remain oblivious. The people of Harmony could genetically banish sight, but they couldn't enhance hearing? How could an entire colony grow into such a successful society when they are completely unprepared to protect themselves? If the farmers of Harmony can be undone by a simple twitchy machine, how have they survived for this long? The questions keep popping up, and David Stahler Jr's attempt to write about the strengths of sightless people falls flat, because in the end they're all portrayed as ignorant and weak.
I must say, when I first received this novel, I was all too eager to devour it immediately. I was intrigued by how the character of Jacob would react to his new sense of sight. In this way, I was satisfied. While the author's handling of the initial experience of sight is disappointing at best (I felt he describes it as a seeing person would, and then makes excuses. Jacob sees grey, but he doesn't know it's grey, but we do!), as the book progresses David Stahler Jr begins to delve deeper into the double-edged sword quality of Jacob's gift. Jacob sees beauty for the first time, but he also sees the underlying ugliness that he never suspected existed. He is introduced to the wonder of body language, for instance, but he suddenly becomes privy to his parents' fracturing relationship when he witnesses his mother's harsh facial expressions and tense posture while she converses with her husband in a deceptively calm voice. The author aptly portrays Jacob's inner struggle, as he is torn between the desire to see and his wish to remain ignorant of the sins of his comrades. David Stahler Jr's spot-on characterisation is what keeps this novel from becoming a complete write-off.
In his debut novel, David Stahler Jr. has a great concept to work with, but he doesn't have a solid enough focus on his ideas. This novel is partially redeemed by his accurate and heartfelt portrayal of Jacob's inner conflicts, but that is only one leg of the tripod. The other two, namely the execution and the credibility of his setting, are too weak to offer any support, so, all in all, this novel is unable to stand on its own.