A woman is tied to a metal frame with her arms high above her head. There is blood on her face because she is being tortured. The frame is lowered into the water and kept there until she is close to drowning. When the frame is raised clear of the water she coughs so hard she throws up all down her chest. Behind a one way mirror two men and two teenage boys watch.
This is a scene from The Ask And The Answer by Patrick Ness, the second book in his trilogy Chaos Walking. The first book won the 2008 Guardian Children’s Book Prize and was nominated for the Carnegie medal.
It’s not the only difficult scene in the book by any means. For example, there’s another scene in which the narrator is placed in charge of putting metal number tags on concentration camp inmates. These tags are bolted onto the leg so tightly that they cause an infection but the metal plates are coated with a medicine which fights the infection so what happens is that the infected skin starts to heal around the band, growing into it, replacing that bit of skin with the metal. The tags cannot be removed without causing the infected wound to reopen. At one point one of the guards, for no reason other than his own amusement, decides to clamp one of the tags around the neck of an inmate, causing him to collapse as his throat is constricted to the point where he cannot breathe.
The concentration camp victims are not human because it’s a science fiction novel. They’re called Spackle. But they behave exactly like humans. They live in family groups, they talk to each other. Except that they don’t talk to each other any more because the food they are given contains a chemical which prevents them from doing so. It’s described in the book as like ‘cutting their tongues out.’
Have you heard enough yet?
There’s been a lot of outrage among children’s authors about the idea that publishers have come up with of putting age-guidance on children’s books even though we all know that many books are bought for children by well-meaning adults who haven’t the time or the inclination to read them first. They just look at what it says on the cover and if the book has won a prestigious prize, well that probably seems as good a recommendation as any.
I’m going to get a lot of flack for saying this but I think some of the authors who have made a fuss about the idea of age-guidance want to forget that they are actually writing children’s books. They want to be taken seriously as literary figures and they suspect that having an age rating on their books will militate against that.
Of course that’s just speculation on my part. What I really wanted to say was that The Ask And The Answer is a powerful but harrowing book about the way that politicians impose themselves upon our society and how individuals respond to them but I won’t be recommending it to my daughter even though she really enjoys YA fiction because I think she would find it too disturbing. She’s thirty one, by the way.