Sunday, 16 November 2014

Book Review: The H-Bomb Girl


Lately I feel like my blog has been moving away from the original 'bibliophilia' concept, which doesn't bother me too much as I never really intended to only post about books, but I thought I'd get back on track today with a review. If you've been reading my blog for a while you'll know that my idea of a review is less of an objective analysis that goes through the good and bad aspects of the novel, and more of a chance for me to rave about my favourite books under the guise of professionalism.

On precisely that note, it's not the first time I've read The H-Bomb Girl, and as it's one of my favourite books of all time I highly doubt it will be the last - however, I felt that this time round I read it is really worth talking about here on my blog.

Note: this post will contain spoilers

The H-Bomb Girl by Stephen Baxter

One of my favourite things about this book is that its genre is not entirely obvious. Although it's filed under dystopian fiction on my bookshelf (and it really ought to be under science fiction, only that shelf isn't high enough to fit it on as my copy is hardback and really quite huge), there's certainly a case to be made for it being historical fiction: it's set in the sixties, more than 50 years ago (an often-cited criteria for historical fiction), and the author writes from research rather than personal experience.

I tend to love books which are somewhat ambiguous in terms of genre, for instance the Gemma Doyle trilogy by Libba Bray, which falls comfortably in between fantasy and (my old favourite) historical fiction. Another example is Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl, a book of such epic proportions and mind-boggling complexity I can't even begin to think how to label it.

But anyway. The H-Bomb Girl is set in Liverpool in October 1962, with the Cuban Missile Crisis looming. It just so happens that in history class at the moment we're actually studying the Cold War and in particular this crisis, so for the first time I actually fully understood all the political background - while it is sort of explained, it's assumed that the reader has a decent knowledge of the Cold War, which I can't say I had until recently. Essentially, the Cuban Missile Crisis was a 13-day confrontation in October 1962 between the United States and the Soviet Union over the discovery of Soviet missiles in Cuba, poised ready to annihilate several major American cities at the push of a button. It was the closest the Cold War came to escalating into a full scale nuclear war, which I find absolute fascinating in itself - if things hadn't gone exactly as they did during those 13 days, it might have resulted in one of the two superpowers deploying their missiles, which would have meant a swift retaliation by the other side and BOOM: the world as we knew it would have ceased to exist.

The H-Bomb Girl centres on, among other things, what would have happened if this had actually occurred. The main character is 14-year-old Laura Mann, who has just moved from London to Liverpool and on of this is dealing with her parents' difficult divorce and the return of her mother's American love interest from the days of the war. Her dad is an RAF officer, and has entrusted her with a strange key whose existence she must keep secret: she doesn't know what it is or what it's for, only that it will keep her safe if the worst should happen. On her first day at school she meets Bernadette, a tough girl who looks older than her age, and Joel, the only black kids in the school. Joel is extremely knowledgeable about the political situation, and works out that Laura's key is somehow linked to Vulcan bomber planes.

I won't go into the whole plot here, but I will say that time travel is a major plot element, and parallel timelines begin to converge in a very confusing way. Any fans of Doctor Who will be more than able to cope with the concepts introduced, which include paradoxes and moments where time is in flux, not to mention thrilled at the mention of a new BBC programme introduced as 'Dr Who' at the end of the novel.

One of my favourite things about the story is the way Liverpool's vibrant youth culture, particularly music (the Beatles make several appearances) is seamlessly interwoven with the science fiction side of things. One minute you've got teds making trouble in the Cavern Club, and the next minute future versions of Laura are explaining how they came to be in 1962. Another element which breaks up the narrative to particularly interesting effect is excerpts from Laura's diary, which turns out to be very relevant to the plot.

There is so much content in The H-Bomb Girl that it's quite easy to pick it apart, although I hardly want to for fear of spoiling its wonderful integrity. Something I might say in criticism of the writing itself is that, in my opinion, Stephen Baxter seems to miss the mark in a lot of the action scenes and ones where the characters are interacting with a lot of emotion. I think it works, on the whole, but some moments are a little less than smooth which does bother me on occasion. But on the whole it's a terrific read, and one I know I will come back to over and over again.

Rating: 8.5/10


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