The Detainee

Peter Liney
The Detainee Cover

The Detainee


There has been an influx of dystopian novels recently, most of them centered on YA main characters, with an almost mandatory focus on teenage angst and love triangles, to the point that I've been somewhat driven off the genre because of this depressing... sameness of offering. So when I started reading Peter Liney's The Detainee I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this fascinating book, whose narrative drew me in instantly with its powerful and lyrical writing, was about older people.

Imagine a not-so-distant future in which garbage is dumped away from urban sprawls, like the island where the action takes place: here rotting trash piles up in stinking mounds and creates pockets of flammable gases and corrosive pools. Now imagine that this wasteland is peopled by the old, the infirm, the unwanted - just like so much trash, the citizens who are not longer useful or productive are dumped here to die, out of sight, out of mind. And not just them: children and teenagers are sent to the island as well - those who have become a financial burden for their parents, or those who are considered unredeemable by society. A satellite network keeps everyone there preventing any attempt at escape, stunning or killing those individuals who break the law. As if this weren't enough to paint a chilling picture, the elders live in abject terror of foggy nights, because on those nights - when the satellites are virtually blind - bands of blood-thirsty and drugged youths raid their village to maim, torture and kill the elders, pointed at by government, media and the island's drug-lords as the culprits for the social upheaval that brought them there. What we see here is indeed the antechamber of Hell, a place where the borders between inmates and wardens, victims and torturers, are so blurred as to be nonexistent, a place without laws, hope, compassion.

Even before I gathered these details, the situation was made clear by the first paragraph, the one that hooked me with its simple yet powerful writing:

There's a scream inside us all we save for death. Once it's out, once it's given to the world, there ain't no going back on it. It's time to let go, to release your fragile grip on life. Otherwise, God's just going to wrench it from you.

The narrating voice is that of "Big Guy" Clancy, the main character: once a powerful gangster's enforcer, he's 63 and dealing with the painful awareness of the indignities, big and small, of growing old, especially on this island where survival is not just a matter of strength, health or willpower, but of luck - the luck of not being one of the victims targeted by the raiders on foggy nights. Despite his violent past Clancy still holds on to some remnants of humanity he tries to suppress, even from himself: when we meet him, he's listening to the hopeless cries of the latest raid's victims, knowing he's safe for this time, blessing his luck - but on the background I could hear the better part of his soul rebelling against it all. It's therefore not surprising that he will find himself headed for massive changes through a chance encounter that will pull him away from the path of simple survival toward something... different.

I believe the main theme of the book is hope: what happens when it's stripped away, and when it's glimpsed again like a blurry mirage you don't want to believe in. With nothing to hold on to, the older people have come to some sort of inert acceptance, shutting out cognitive processes in terror when danger grows near, only to go back to the usual routine when the storm is past. In Clancy's own words It's as if the longer we live like this [...] the more we regress to what we've always been: dumb animals. Eating when we can, sleeping when we can, mutely accepting those who occasionally come to cull this sickly old herd. In such a state, the barest glimmer of hope can be more painful than the killing blows from the young attackers, because it re-awakens feelings and thoughts that are best forgotten, as another islander puts it in one of the best sentences of the book: "You know, I can take the bars; it's the patches of sky in between that break you".

Lack of hope, and of any alternative, lies at the roots of the younger people's behavior as well: robbed of their childhood by the circumstances that brought them to the island, they become victims of a peculiar twist in Stockholm's Syndrome, turning into torturers to forget their status as victims. This animalistic regression is more deeply rooted than the similar phenomenon occurring in the older generation, because these children and youths have far less good memories to hold on to than their counterparts. And here is where one of the less believable narrative threads occurs: because if a reversal of such a situation is indeed possible, the apparent swiftness in which it occurs in a specific instance left me dubious, as did a few others I cannot list for fear of giving too much away. In these cases my suspension of disbelief did falter, but I also have to admit that they were just passing moments, because The Detainee is the kind of story that does not allow you to come up for air too often, and holds you in thrall from start to finish.

Not a "happy book", not by a long shot: there are horrifying moments and glimpses of that twisted micro-cosmos that chilled my blood. Yet it's written with such a deceptive simplicity that it draws you in, until you see hidden depths that make you think. And I could not ask for more.