Wednesday, January 5, 2011

REVIEW: The Colony, by Jillian Weise

The Colony, by Jillian Weise. Published 2010 by Soft Skull Press. Literary Fiction.

Jillian Weise's novel The Colony is about medical ethics, personal choices and society's expectations. A young woman named Anne Hatley, bright and attractive and smart, goes into a Long Island research facility- The Colony- to participate in DNA experiments that promise to restore her missing leg. She'll spend several months living there, interacting with the other patients and receiving treatments. This is a paid gig, and Anne thinks she's in it just for the money and the time off from work- she doesn't really want to change anything about her body, and she's skeptical that the painful and invasive treatments will even work. Then, over time, she's forced to confront herself, her relationships and her feelings about her changing condition.

To like The Colony you have to sympathize with Anne and although I found her difficult and irrational at times, I thought she was a very normal woman and easy to relate to. In this place devoted to physical and mental perfection, she finds herself under a great deal of pressure to think of herself as imperfect- this after a young lifetime spent living with a physical difference and learning to love herself and accept herself in the face of the kind of pity and condescension that those who are different often receive. Unfortunately, it seemed like this very interesting struggle got a little muddled in her romantic problems as she has to choose between her dull boyfriend and the charismatic Nick, a fellow patient with his own baggage.

Weise relies heavily on the real history of genetic experiments and eugenics in framing the narrative; Charles Darwin and Peter Singer appear as characters, and she includes documents and other material from the real Cold Spring Harbor facility in the book as well as a section of internet references documenting her research, lending her story convincing verisimilitude. The scientific stuff is interesting but the emotional component of the story is what interested me the most, and I wish Weise had developed this aspect more fully. The resentment, and pain, of being told that your difference is something wrong with you, that your hard-won self-acceptance is a sign of weakness, and that all you should want is to be someone else's idea of perfect are powerful emotional themes and although Weise does touch on them, I wish that she had pushed harder and gone deeper to explore them.

That said, I love that she wrote a novel exploring these issues, even if she didn't go far enough for me, and I think The Colony is a great starting-place for conversations about difference, about what it means to truly accept a person the way he or she is and about what we think about others tells us about ourselves. Pick it up if you're looking for something to challenge you and make you think.

Rating: BACKLIST


FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.