Mirroring the 2020 teen experience, Eleanor Bassett
09 March , 2021
In 2020, everyone had a lockdown project. Breadmaking, crafts, Netflix, running….. Dan Salmon’s was writing his promising debut novel, Neands. Salmon has spent almost the last 20 years cementing his place in the New Zealand visual entertainment industry with A Good Way to Die, Dirty Bloody Hippies, and Made in Taiwan. By the number one on the spine, I sense he may be spending the next two decades in cementing his place as a New Zealand young adult futuristic dystopian writer.
Neands tells the story of a human-altering virus that spreads rapidly, converting humans into something reminiscent of prehistoric Neanderthals; and the New Zealand teens trying to unravel the mysterious cause. Amongst this, a background of distrust in science and climate change grows. Reading the first few chapters about the warning of a virus by a scientist going unheeded gave déjà vu to the Wuhan whistleblower of COVID-19 at the end of 2020!
I have a rule; I give a book the first 60 pages to convince me to keep reading. From the font, allegories and the structure, to the illustrated inserts (fictional newspaper clippings, the main character’s notes) it reads in some parts like a filmscript converted to a novel; but I turned to page 61. The font is hard to read, but worth the effort. Salmon’s writing appeals to the climate change generation, everyone who has a bit of eco-warrior in them, and the politically opinionated. When the three main character teens are watching a politician speak on TV, the almost cartoon-style description of the politician coupled with the reactions of the teens speaks to the polarisation of political views in teens today; regardless which end of the political spectrum.
Important to the young adult dystopian genre, and reflecting the generation of combined optimists and pessimists, there is a thread of underlying narrative that is optimistically ‘normal’; crushes, dating, uncertainty. When the main characters fantasise and enact taking a boat to ‘escape’, there is a feeling of Swallows and Amazons childhood innocence clashing with the lack of innocence in the messaging of the book.
The loss of innocence and coming-of-age theme, although not new in the dystopian genre; mirrored for many teens the 2020 experience. This adds a tinge of not-quite-nostalgia, not-quite-suppressed memories of 2020 to the reading! Like any entertainment or book, the personal response is important, as Salmon will be well aware, and this book creates one.
The allegories and comparisons to real life are unapologetically in-your-face, but coming from a documentary writer, director, and producer this was not a shock. Controversial; but every now and then I like my allegories to be easy to find and interpret! This debut, and its potential sequels, sits on the shelf somewhere alongside Kathy Reich’s Virals series and Fleur Beales Juno Of Taris.
Eleanor Bassett is 18 and lives in Upper Hutt. When she isn’t attempting to be Dr Dolittle or the next Pippa Funnell or the next Molly Huddle; she pores over and philosophises all forms of writings!