"Ration" Book Review
Written by Tony Jones
Published by Apex Book Company
Written by Cody T. Luff
2019, 263 pages, Fiction
Released on 13th August, 2019
If you intend to read Cody Luff’s stunning Ration, I would advise either eating a huge dinner, stocking up on junk food, or preferably both before opening the first page. Why? This breathtakingly powerful novel is about food, or more precisely, the desperate lack of it. A fitting alternative title might have been ‘Hunger’, as every character in this story suffers from it; nobody escapes. Everything that happens in Ration is connected to food; from the motives of the characters to the horrific consequences of eating a prized ‘A’ ration. This is one of the darkest and most nihilistic books I have read in a long time, but it is also riveting from start to finish and will surely be in the mix for novel of the year when 2019 ends. Ration is only the second book I have awarded the coveted five stars on Horror DNA this year. It is that good.
For the most part the story is told in alternating chapters from the points of view of Cynthia and Tuttle, but in the opening sequence ‘Bleeder’ a girl called Natalie puts her hand up to tell the Mistress she is bleeding. She has obviously started menstruating, it is also made clear that this is not a normal school. Natalie is congratulated and the Mistress tells her she is now ‘a bleeder’ and a member of Cohort One. She is now also ‘a potential’. Natalie is then removed from the class and disappears from the story. It is clear that a girl starting her period is a big deal, but like many things in this great book, its secrets are revealed exquisitely slowly. You’ll find yourself reading between the lines, digging for facts, and ultimately startled when another revelation is quietly dropped. Many of which are horrific.
Due to the very clever gradual release of facts which populate the background of Ration, I am going to be deliberately vague to avoid spoilers. Advance press has compared it to modern masterpieces such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. These are lofty claims to make, but Ration stands well against these classics and ranks favourably against the huge number of dystopian and post-apocalyptic novels published in recent years. It also has a very strong emphasis of gender in the same vein as hugely successful novels such as Christina Dalcher’s Vox and Naomi Alderman’s The Power, which have recently attracted universal praise. Ration might not be as mainstream as those two books which have big publishing houses behind them, but it is as good as both and deserves to find a wide audience. However, because of the bleakness of what lies within its pages, it may not pick up the level of press it genuinely deserves.
Set as some point in the future, there is a world food shortage, and we are never told where the novel is set. One gets the feeling there is nowhere better to escape to and no gold lurks behind any rainbow. Most of the action revolves around a group of girls who live in a building called the Apartments. To varying degrees, they are all starving and most probably eat a meal every few days. There is no food as we would know it and only three types of rations exist: ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’, which provide different levels of nutrition, with ‘A’ being the highest. Below that the very poor eat an algae type paste which is so foul it burns the gums. Paper is also mushed up into edible paste. There are also complex rules regarding eating, which is key to the plot. Early in the novel there is a particularly shocking scene where a girl eats something she should not and suffers a barbaric punishment. She is forced to lie down with her hands splayed out and every other girl in the Apartments has to use the heel of their feet to stamp on her fingers, hands and arms, breaking multiple bones along the way.
The story is played out from both sides of the fence; Ms Tuttle is in charge of the Apartments and Cynthia is one of the residents. To an extent this is an ‘us’ and ‘them’ tale, as Tuttle is a woman whom we realise has different rights from girls, and within the confines of the Apartments Tuttle is God and rules with an iron fist, ably supported by her enforcer, the brutal Ms Glennoc. Through Ms Tuttle we are slowly made aware of the true purposes of the Apartments and how she tries to keep her own head above water when circumstances spiral out of control. Such is the skill of the writing, even though Tuttle should be seen as the ‘bad guy’ we still have sympathies for her. Via Cynthia, everything from the other side is revealed; her close friendship with Imeld and eventually what lurks beyond the Apartments. The spirit of Cynthia is also a major highlight of the book, especially in her conflicts with the barbaric Glennoc.
I’ve never wondered too much about what goes into a calorie and in Ration a calorie is a commodity to be bought and sold in a world where there is no food. It is the ultimate currency and the whole society is built around it; this is an exceptionally convincing part of this novel. It never truly paints the whole picture and you’ll have to join some dots yourself and will not like the results. If you have nothing left to trade, what do you sell? It’s a highly original work and as well as the novels already mentioned it recalled Joseph D’Lacey’s Meat, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and the 1970s science fiction film, Soylent Green.
Similar to the only other book I have awarded five stars on Horror DNA in 2019, Ian Reid’s majestic Foe, it is one of those novels in which the less you know in advance the better. It’s not strictly a horror novel, nor is it a straight dystopian tale and it rises way above the confines of genre fiction. One could argue that this is a genuine example of contemporary speculative fiction and a warning shot for what lies ahead for mankind should there be a genuine worldwide food shortage. It is both bleak and brutal, but also carries a powerful message of love. Highly recommended.
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