In her post-apocalyptic debut novel, Sarah Maria Griffin never lets you forget that her protagonist, Nell Crane, is running out of time. The ticking of Nell’s mechanical heart never lets her forget, either: she is coming up on her twenty-first birthday and must present a “contribution” to her community in the Pale (the shattered remnants of Dublin), go to the Pasture where her Nan presides like a priestess, or become one of the workers on the colossal statue of Kathleen ni Houlihan (also called Kate), which was designed by her late mother. But Nell has no ideas: she lives in the shadow of her father, Julian Crane, who is an indispensable part of the Pale’s society: in this world, some hundred years after a technological catastrophe and epidemic called The Turn, nearly everyone is born, in some way, not quite whole. Some people are missing an arm, or an eye, or have a malformed hip, and Julian makes biokinetic prosthetics that do not violate the prohibitions against pre-Turn technology, but allow people to live with and around their disabilities. How on earth can Nell, an awkward, lonely girl with a perpetually ticking heart, compare to her great father, living under his roof, or to her mother Cora, whose statue looms over Nell’s every day?
One day, Nell finds the hand of a mannequin washed up on the beach, and an idea strikes her: to make herself a companion who can move and think like a human, but is entirely mechanical. There’s just one problem: she’ll need a computer for his brain, and computers are banned in this world. Oh, and she’ll need more than just a mannequin hand: she’ll need all the cast-off prosthetics, which are inconveniently in the custody of a neighbor boy, Oliver Kelly, who is desperately trying to court her, and whom Nell utterly detests. How will she manage it this project–and how will her community react?
I love Irish fiction, and I’m always curious about post-apocalyptic stories, and Griffin’s debut novel came to my attention when I realized how little science fiction or fantasy I had read by Irish authors. (Ireland is not short on brilliant writers, but it turns out very few of them publish science fiction or fantasy, for reasons that are unclear.) The parallels to Frankenstein come clear pretty early, once you realize Nell is going to have to cobble her friend together from, as the title says, spare and found parts. Nell is one of those prickly protagonists who is easy to sympathize with, even if she’s not terribly likable at times: she labors under considerable pressure, and in addition to her physical disabilities (the malformed heart that her father replaced with a mechanical one), Griffin seems to hint in moments that she’s also neurodivergent: she dislikes being touched, she struggles to connect with other people the way her vivacious friend Ruby can, she can get lost for hours upon hours in working on her designs.
For all that Nell and her journey is fascinating, though, the novel itself is a bit lopsided and uneven. The setting is compelling, and Griffin spends most of the first half of the book setting it up, along with Nell’s quest. The pace here is leisurely, and I don’t mind that: lingering can be half the fun in a novel with a well-considered setting, particularly one with such Gothic overtones as this (and I did have fun spotting the references to parts of current-day Dublin that I’ve encountered). But the pace turns about halfway through, and the major reveals about Julian Crane, the death of Nell’s mother, and Oliver Kelly’s unrelenting courtship collide, with mixed results, in too-quick succession, and some of the more dreamlike, evocative moments of the first half (particularly the first-person flashbacks) get lost in all the haste to consummate the plot. It was an enjoyable read (and truly, the setting is fantastic, from the underground computer nerds’ rave to Julian’s impossible and eerie laboratory), but perhaps leaves one with more curiosity about where Griffin will go in her next endeavor, and whether it will be a bit more of a balanced work. As Julian says to Nell, “Secrets, Nell, are the most important thing when it comes to changing the world. Not always the keeping of them but the timing of their release.” With better timing of its secrets’ release, this book could have been a knockout.