If your only reason for picking up The Detainee by Peter Liney is the publishing buzz about it being a Hunger Games for adults, don’t; however, if you want to read a novel with a dystopian look at ageism, an examination of an extreme example of a police state, and a dose of The Lord of the Flies blended into a unique vision of the future, this may be exactly what you’ve been looking for. Liney’s characters and world manage to get under the reader’s skin even when the exact details are a little off-putting.
Clancy was once an enforcer for an old-school mob head named Mr. Meltoni, but once he was shipped to The Island, a water-bound prison created from a garbage dump, he simply became “Big Guy,” one old man of many whom society held responsible for all of the problems of the present day. On foggy nights, the only time the remote police satellites can’t target criminals, feral children who are hopped up on a variety of psychotropic drugs swarm the Village, the shanty town of the aged, and brutally torture and murder whomever they can find. It is the vicious cycle of The Island, and it seems as inevitable as death. Then, Big Guy is rescued by a young blind woman named Lena, when he accidentally strays in The Old City too close to dark and is attacked by the youngsters. He discovers that Lena has created a safe life in the old tunnels below the town, and, for the first time in years, Big Guy begins to hope that life could be changed for the better.
While The Detainee contains plenty of action, I personally found it more of a character piece since each new cast member was developed and fleshed out so fully. Also, much of the plot hinges on each character’s growth as a person and a member of a functional society rather than external factors: Jimmy is the eccentric scientist/inventor; Delilah has a huge heart despite having a very rough life, sings like an angel, and loves children despite the distrust she’s learned on The Island; Clancy/Big Guy isn’t going to win any Mensa awards, but he’s hardworking and loyal and able to believe in the impossible; and Lena is strong, driven, and inspires both great devotion and great hatred. Even minor characters such as Hannah, one of the children rescued from the beach, have distinct personalities. (Hannah barely speaks, but she is trained in classical ballet, which she incorporates into her fighting style.) Most striking to me is that the majority of the cast, at least in the beginning, are senior citizens (Clancy is at least ten years younger than Jimmy or Delilah.), something that I have not seen in a dystopian novel before.
The crux of The Detainee is clearly getting off The Island, but the characters don’t realize that it’s possible or necessary until about two-thirds of the way through the book. Normally, I would criticize letting the most critical focus stay hidden so long in the narrative, but the struggles for survival are so engaging that the story flows well. Part of the charm is seeing the cast learn that there may be a way to escape their dismal existence; they simply have to find long-forgotten bravery and make a plan.
Clancy isn’t the most reliable voice for the narrative, because he doubts his own intellectual abilities, but he’s not drugged, desperately frightened, or senile like many on The Island. Truthfully, his past as an enforcer makes him uniquely able to absorb the violence of his everyday life, and while I sometimes found his speech patterns frustrating, they were also purely Clancy. He is just one of those people who talks in circles as he works out his ideas and thoughts; I’m just someone who finds that type of conversation a little annoying.
The Detainee is the first volume in a trilogy, and I look forward to seeing how The Mainland contrasts with the poverty and despair of The Island. In my mind I saw the trash prison as a sort of futuristic, dystopian Alcatraz or even a variant on the French prison islands off French Guyana in Papillon, but given that Peter Liney is not American, his influences may be very different. I appreciated his look at how society treats aging and hope that the police state themes get explored even more fully in the remaining books.
If you want to read a dystopian novel that has a unique voice and feel, give The Detainee a try. You may not love it, but it will definitely make you think.
4 References to Sleek Limos and the Mob out of 5