The Giver by Lois Lowry (1993) 179 p.
The Giver is apparently fairly well-known in the US as a classic of young adult fiction, although until I found it on some list or another I’d heard of neither it or its author, Lois Lowry. The novel follows Jonas, a twelve-year-old boy living in an unnamed community where everything is safe and content, and everybody’s life is planned out, but in which there is no freedom or choice.
Lowry does an excellent job developing this world, which an adult reader will quickly see for a totalitarian nightmare, but which a child might at first think of as desirable. One of the first things that will tip an adult reader off – aside from the speakers everywhere and the creepy social order – is the use of the term “release” for the elderly, for repeat criminals, and for weak infants. Clearly a euphemism from an adult’s perspective, but a child reader might not catch on that quickly.
I found the beginning of the story compelling not because it presents an interesting, young-reader examination of a totalitarian community which is also quite readable for an adult – though it does do that – but because it presents an interesting science fiction mystery. The Giver clearly takes place at some point in the distant future; although the citizens travel by bicycle and still use technology as ordinary as planes, there are also elements of their technology which seem to verge on magic. The fact that the world is not as safe and controlled as the community’s leaders would like it to be is suggested on the very first page, with Jonas recalling the time an unknown aircraft flew over the community and sent it into a panic. I was deeply drawn into the book to learn how and why this situation came about; what secrets lay in the past, and outside the community itself. In that sense, as an engrossing sci-fi mystery, it reminded me of Christopher Priest’s Inverted World.
In that sense, however, it also fails. I was prepared to give this book a very high score, but it let me down in the ending, as very little of the world’s history is explained, and although Jonas does leave the community, we learn almost nothing of the world outside. (Apparently there are loose sequels set in the same world, and I may read them.) It also ends quite abruptly, although I certainly wouldn’t call it a bad ending. None of these things are flaws, exactly; The Giver is an excellent piece of YA fiction which introduces important themes and concepts to a young audience, and remains engaging and readable even for an adult. It’s not quite the book I wanted it to be, but that’s my problem, not Lowry’s.