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The Book of Ash: A Novel Paperback – October 15, 2013
This month's Book With Buzz: "Little Fires Everywhere" by Celeste Ng
From the bestselling author of Everything I Never Told You, a riveting novel that traces the intertwined fates of the picture - perfect Richardson family and the enigmatic mother and daughter who upend their lives. See more
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About the Author
John A. McCaffrey grew up in Rochester, New York, graduated from the City College of New York in creative writing, and currently lives in Hoboken, NJ.
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Top customer reviews
It's McCaffrey's deft ability to address both distressing situations, relationships, and the raw humor of being a human that makes his work so powerful. He turns the concept of emotions into commodities, items dealt as products. Anger, like anniversaries, is only "celebrated" once a year. And then it is cashed in for full payment.
I recommend Book of Ash to anyone who enjoys an engaging, well-paced novel that sparkles with both action, emotion, and humanity.
The protagonist, Baldwin Wallace, works as a “miracle counselor” in a commune known as the “Circle,” an atavistic, post-apocalyptic community, set among the silos, sickles, and fallow “rust fields” of a failed agrarian society. It is a world where electricity, motor vehicles, and guns are all conspicuously absent. Here time is told by the strike of the sunrise, sunset, and moonrise “gongs”; longer periods are defined by agriculture cycles, such as sowing or growing seasons. Ironically, it was their environmental good intention that left crops overwatered and over-fertilized; in a similar fashion, the general population has been rendered jaded, complaisant, and utterly ineffectual.
Semantically mad, this society frowns upon direct discourse; nothing is to be asked for or demanded of, but instead “encouraged.” Citizens are not expected to be responsible for their own guidance, as there are counselors for any situation they might encounter: conflict, life, miracle, touch, conception, color, flight, vertical, nutrition, counting, waste… even a “nightshade counselor,” who tends over plants that grow only in darkness. The principal doctrine of the “Circle” is a work entitled The Book of Ash, with its numbered “Encouragements” as didactic as any of the Ten Commandments. The ultimate punishment for disobeying these Encouragements is to be sent off to a “gratitude farm,” as the display of unqualified gratitude towards others is one of the Circle’s most vehemently enforced edicts.
With such a rigid code of conduct, how does a society like this keep from breaking apart completely? The solution prescribed by The Book of Ash is one day of total catharsis: The Day of No Consequence. On this day citizens are allowed to act in any manner they wish, with total impunity; inevitably, murder is the most popular choice of action on that day, as scores are settled across the social strata. McCaffrey effectively employs this approaching day of retribution to mount dramatic tension between his characters, weaving them into a suspenseful web of potential killers and victims, shifting alliances and concealing motives.
Author John McCaffrey has thrown in some marvelous touches to color his dismal world, such as the random public nudity or cross-dressing of certain characters, as it is encouraged by the Circle to wear at least one piece of clothing of the opposite sex. There is also a culinary didacticism of sorts, an edict “to let things die on their own accord”; this is reflected in the odd variety of food provided to all citizens in their nightly “edibles bag,” a mix of half-rotten vegetables and foraged items such as snakes, bark, squirrel jerky, and rose petals.
In such a menagerie of odd characters and aberrant behavior, the author has placed his protagonist, a man with sensible values and prudent, rational behavior most readers can easily identify with; as a consequence, Baldwin clearly stands out from the other characters in the book. Unlike them, his motivations are not influenced by the Circle and their doctrine; he resists being pressured into killing a man on The Day of No Consequence, though it is completely authorized and socially acceptable to do so that day. When he ultimately commits the act, it is clearly motivated by his emotions and sanctioned from his own heart.
Perhaps the most significant attribute of McCaffrey’s book is the humor throughout. Beyond the situational humor inherent in the premise and well-crafted, offbeat characters that abound, McCaffrey’s greatest talent here is an impeccable sense of comic timing in his dialogue. Wavering between quick, droll exchanges and anarchic outbursts, the author navigates a sea of euphemisms that filters nearly everything his characters say.
Bereft of many of dystopian literature’s usual trappings, the dilemma of McCaffrey’s Baldwin Wallace feels much more familiar to us, his world alarmingly close to our own. As Hetta, the love of Baldwin’s life, tells him:
“I blame the Circle, The Book of Ash, people like Leonard. This is what happens when you live in a place that is bent on making things better, when you follow a doctrine designed to make things better, when you’re led by a person who wants to make things better; things eventually get worse.”
Ultimately, the threat is not in Baldwin’s future world; it is in our present. What is at stake here is refreshingly commonplace amidst the gratitude farms, timeholes, and rust balls: unconditional love.
I would change party allegiances in a second if a presidential candidate would support a Day of No Consequence here for us now- how much fun!
I'm very impressed!