The Boundless Sublime by Lili Wilkinson
Published July 27, 2016 by Allen & Unwin
Source: the publisher
Rating: 3 stars
From the blurb: Ruby Jane Galbraith is empty. Her family has been torn apart and it's all her fault.The only thing that makes sense to her is Fox - a gentle new friend who is wise, soulful and clever, yet oddly naive about the ways of the world. He understands what she's going through and he offers her a chance to find peace. Fox belongs to a group called the Institute of the Boundless Sublime - and Ruby can't stay away from him. So she is also drawn into what she discovers is a terrifying, secretive community that is far from the ideal world she expected.Can Ruby find the courage to escape? Is there any way she can save Fox too? And is there ever an escape from the far-reaching influence of the Institute of the Boundless Sublime?
A new novel by a favourite author is always cause for excitement, but after reading The Boundless Sublime, excitement seems like the wrong feeling to have for a book that's quite serious and dark. It wasn't what I was expecting at all, and while I can't describe my reading experience as enjoyable, I did find it easy to read, finishing it in a day, and it certainly gave me a lot to think about.
The idea of a young girl joining a cult is an interesting idea for a YA book, and it definitely seems to be a current trend in books and TV. Lili Wilkinson has also produced a series of short videos covering her research to accompany the release of the book, and I suppose that's where my first issue began. I've watched these videos over the past six weeks, including the most recent one the day before starting the book. Once I began reading I realised I was hearing the author's voice and not the character's which made it hard to distinguish between the author's opinions and the character's. Having been given insight into the author's thoughts on cults and other groups she finds cult-like, it took me a while to start hearing Ruby's voice.
And while I eventually did so, I never truly connected with Ruby. We meet her at a low point in her life - her family has suffered the death of her younger brother and Ruby is consumed with grief and guilt. Her father is in a remand centre, her mother has completely shut down, and Ruby is going through the day-to-day motions, but isn't really living life. She tells the reader she used to be happy, that she used to love playing the piano, that she used to enjoy hanging out with her friends, but because we meet her now, we never see what she was like. I knew I should have been feeling sympathy but instead I felt distanced from her.
Ruby falls hard and she falls quickly, never really stopping to question the motives of Fox and his family. There is some commentary on the food they eat, but Ruby seems to make assumptions about their choices and interprets it in her own way. Within a short period of time she is repulsed by the typical food most omnivores eat, and she is absolutely disgusted by her aunt's body, describing her as 'soft and flabby', even though there didn't seem to be any mention of body shaming at the dinners she attended at the Red House. She decides to go with Fox to a secret location, naively assuming she'll be able to leave whenever she wants. She's known Fox two weeks yet she cannot imagine living without him. I feel like a lot of Ruby's choices can be blamed on her grief, but that excuse wore thin after a while.
Once at The Institute of the Boundless Sublime, the pace really slowed down, especially when compared to the quick introduction to Ruby and the cult. Ruby becomes even harder to connect with here as she flits from judgement and derision, to belief and servitude so easily. There was some tension, especially once introduced to 'Daddy', and I knew it was only a matter of time before things started to turn sour. The twist at the end didn't surprise me, instead I think a lot of it could have been cut as by that stage I was ready for the story to end, not to be dragged back in.
A lot of what I assume was meant to seem weird didn't shock me. Once you've gone vegan and you realise how normal it is, you then hear about raw vegans, fruitarians, and people who undergo medically-supervised water fasts, so eating raw food didn't seem all that strange. But for someone eating the standard Western diet, eating all raw food would seem odd and unsustainable. Of course the typically culty aspects (isolation, punishment, abuse) were as sickening as can be expected, but again not shocking.
I have all of these issues with the story, but I can see a purpose to them - the slow pace would mimic the eight months that Ruby spends at the Institute. The twist shows how easy it is for people to get dragged into a cult. The insta-love is something teenagers experience all the time. How quickly Ruby falls for Fox shows how desperate she was to be pulled out of her grief, so desperate that she ignores all the warning signs. I know all of the reasons these elements may have been used, but they still detracted from my reading experience.
There were also a couple of things that didn't add up to me, or that I wish had been explained further Firstly, Newton tells Ruby that they do not grow root vegetables, yet later on Val feeds Ruby pieces of carrot. Secondly, the bottled water is always talked about so suspiciously but it didn't live up to all that suspense in the end. And finally, the word technic is used over and over again and it took me out of the story every single time - is this an annoying US spelling of technique? I've googled it and I'm still not sure.
The Boundless Sublime is a book about family and first loves, as well as an examination of grief, and what happens when you make major life decisions while in that frame of mind. While it wasn't my cup of tea, I know there will be a lot of readers who will love it.
Thank you to Allen & Unwin for my copy. RRP A$19.99.
Cover design: Astred Hicks, Design Cherry
I started with a base of black nail polish and used acrylic paint for the light bulb and stripes.