Alternative history shines light on fitting in
In 1928, New Zealand Parliament deliberated on a law allowing the forced sterilisation of mentally disabled and “unfit” people. Ultimately, it wasn’t passed. But what if it was? This unsettling alternative history sets the premise for Wellington author L.J. Ritchie’s latest novel, Monsters of Virtue. After years of researching New Zealand’s close call with national eugenics, the YA novel is an action-packed story thrillingly close to non-fiction.
It’s New Zealand, 1932. The Great Depression rages through the country, yet in the Otaki River Gorge there is a refuge of engineered perfection; Galtonia. Run by mysterious millionaire Walter Hannay and the country’s brand new Eugenics Department, acceptance into the school is an honour reserved for the best and brightest children. While the benefits for their families and their futures are constantly emphasised, the understated yet intense indoctrination with radical virtues is just one of Galtonia’s well-kept secrets.
As current students, Nyx and Orion have optimistic futures as long as they can keep their respective rebellious curiosity and weak nature under wraps. Meanwhile, Eve is certain she doesn’t belong but knows to fit in is essential for her family to survive. Bonded by secret imperfections, these three teenagers soon realise they aren’t the only ones with things to hide; at Galtonia, things aren’t all they seem.
Splitting the already mysterious plot between the narration of Nyx, Orion and Eve means accounts conflict and lines are blurred until wrong looks right, the truth is deceptive and humanity is lost in the chaos. It isn’t until finishing the novel you realise the real thrill lies not with the revelations of Galtonia’s eugenics crusade, but in the subtle moments when their strategy seems to make sense.
Featuring determined teens fighting against a totalitarian system, Monsters of Virtue will be a hit with any Hunger Games fans ready to ditch predictable high school plots and dig into something a little deeper.
While topics like sterilisation, controlled breeding and xenophobia seem somewhat sophisticated for a YA novel, it carries messages that older teenagers and adults could do with hearing. In a society rampant with radical supremacy, fake news and sensationalised politics, Ritchie’s latest novel is a thought-provoking criticism to the ways authority can warp a nation. And how, no matter your age or stage, everyone can join the fight for the truth.
MONSTERS OF VIRTUE by L.J. Ritchie (Escalator Press, $28) Reviewed by Sarah Pollok