Gerard Collins Reviews an Entertaining, Gorgeous Read Bursting with Subtext
Ali Bryan’s young adult novel, The Hill, is a well-wrought journey told from the perspective of a teenager named Wren who feels unprepared for the leadership position she inherits. Wren’s mettle is tested when, only a few hours after she assumes that demanding role, one of her charges goes missing, and the outside world encroaches.
The story is set in a “world destroyed by oppression, overconsumption, and exploitation,” more specifically a place called the Hill, an island landfill that happens to be “shaped like a sleeping girl” and whose 42 inhabitants are exclusively young and female. As part of the annual Departure ceremony, the eldest 11 leave for the Colony, the part of the Mainland where the older girls must go when they turn 15.
The Mainland is “overcrowded, hostile, and lawless” with “chaos on every corner” while the Colony thrives as “humanity’s only hope.” Wren is two days short of her 15th birthday, and so by law must stay behind on the Hill and become the new leader.
In subtle ways, this novel is a fantastical study of how civilization is structured, the social dynamic between girls in the absence of boys, and how that dynamic shifts with the threat of a male presence.
Every girl has a job—for example, as Mother, Collector, or Hunter—which denotes their place within the society. “We are always in danger,” Wren says, and it’s because, for 67 years, the Hill’s inhabitants have been warned that boys mean danger and that “outside of the Hill’s boundary, girls cannot survive.”
As such, the girls’ lives are guided by “the Manual,” an instructional book that prescribes how to live, which “patriarchal language” is banned, and which places to avoid. Those edicts get tested when, just hours after the Departure, a girl named Harlow goes missing, and Wren and her best friend Quinn venture into the forbidden forest to look for her. From that moment, Wren finds herself questioning the Manual and confronting the fears that have shaped their existence.
To some degree, we have tread this ground before—The Lord of the Flies, The Hunger Games, The Wilds, Lostand myriad novels, movies and television shows that offer similar scenarios of post-apocalyptic tribalism—but Bryan walks these familiar tropes in a fresh way by virtue of her language. Spare, purposeful and at times gorgeous, Bryan’s prose style varies between the necessary just-get-them-moving details to soaring metaphors.
One description of a child says, “Her face is soft, as though she was painted into existence,” an image that startles with its deceptive simplicity. Most of Bryan’s metaphors and descriptions ring with authenticity and imagination, while nearly every page contains at least one such sublime moment. Later, she describes a tunnel that “smells like earth and lost time,” as well as a floor that is not just walked upon but “flogged” by footsteps that punish it.
Wren reminds us that elders have a responsibility to the young, part of which is to lead by example: to ask questions and to push the boundaries of accepted truth. She is a strong, smart protagonist who needs to learn who to trust, while her lack of confidence doesn’t keep her from doing what she considers right. She holds the moral high ground, regardless of obstacles, because she cares for the community and exhibits tenderness toward its younger members.
Even Quinn, a fallible warrior in her own right, feels the right to criticize Wren’s performance. Wren and Quinn spar quite often, making them more like adversaries at times.
When we first see Wren, she stands alone, and Quinn admonishes her for being “late.” Quinn clearly considers herself to be a worthier leader, while Wren thinks Quinn is a hothead who should not be trusted with power.Ali Bryan is an award-winning writer with a list of noteworthy accomplishments, and this is her third book. The Hill is a quick and entertaining read, bursting with subtext for the times in which we live and warnings for where we might be headed: evermore toward a separation of genders and ideologies, cultural amnesia, fear of the other, and a reckoning for living an unnatural, narrow and obedient existence.