Jason is a 17 year old from a pig farm outside a small town. One winter his mother, and everyone in town, dies of a mysterious illness. Andrew is a black doctor who’s had an encounter with the Ku Klux Klan that left him badly injured and with too many questions for him to rest easy in town. Fate conspires to bring them together in Elida. A remote community that values Charity. Community. Hygiene. But something is going on in town that isn’t quite right. There’s something hiding in quarantine. But it won’t stay there.
I’m not sure what I expected from this one and I’m not sure what I got either. The novel is premised on a belief in eugenics – the belief drives the supposedly Utopian town of Elida, the residents of which are selected especially to promote strength, freedom from illness or disability and a gene pool similarly endowed. But as if that wasn’t creepy enough soon enough the plot turns to the supernatural to provide the scares. One might wonder why. Deep in the forest lives a mythical shape shifter. Variously referred to as the Faerie King or the Juke, this parasitic creature lays its eggs inside human bodies and weaves its magic on their minds, convincing them that they are in the presence of a god, a saviour, magic as convincing as it is unfaithhful.
This novel absolutely excels at two things: pacing and creepiness. I read this one in less than a week. Given my track record that’s pretty remarkable. I lost hours and hours without even realising, I was that engrossed. And aside from the suspense, it was the chilling, goosebump inducing sense that there’s something lurking in the shadows, just in the corner of my eye that kept me reading. No-one seems entirely trustworthy, everything seems unsafe and every now and then even a pretty girl seems to have rows of tiny razor sharp teeth behind her smile. I am not okay with this.
What this novel doesn’t excel at is making its point. It was well written, the characters were really charismatic and the phrasing felt straight out of 1911 – if improbably well-schooled for a 17 year old pig farmer. The problem is the supernatural bad-guys, seductive, alien and duplicitous, weren’t nearly as scary as the human element. I assume that’s the point – the golden promise of a perfect human order via enforced sterilisation and selective breeding is as flawed as faith in a hypnotic, but parasitic Faerie King. Blind faith can lead a person to a bad, bad place. But Nickle seemed to be telling that story really well without Mister Juke. I tore through it and enjoyed it thoroughly but after finishing it I felt a little lost. If I could I’d give it 5 stars for its ability to unsettle, three stars for how confused it left me and two stars for its medical drama scenes. Ultimately, this is great writing that’s creepy as hell. If that’s your kind of thing.
Eutopia: A Novel of Terrible Optimism, David Nickle: three and a half stars. (This seems to be my favourite rating. I think it means – I like this a fair bit but I have niggling doubts about my generosity when it comes to the star rating.)
Read it if: you’re not alone in the house at night. Really.