Genre: Literary, Dystopian, Coming of Age
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication Date:December 22, 2015 (Original: 1990)
Formats Available: Kindle
In an unspecified country that combines elements of Chile under its military regime, South Africa under apartheid, and Italy under fascism, fifteen-year-old Karel Roeder asks only to be left alone to learn from Albert, his mentor at the zoo’s reptile house, and to devote himself to his girlfriend, Leda. But both Leda and Albert lead him into increasingly proscribed areas of thought and speech, and thus into conflict with a newly ascendant party that intends to prosecute a border war against an officially despised ethnic group and criminalize dissent. Citizens have been disappearing and surveillance in the name of safety has become all-pervasive. When Kehr, a special assistant of the civil guard, billets himself at Karel’s house for unknown reasons, Karel finds his already tenuous hold on his own innocence crushed as Kehr—tribune, inquisitor, and metaphysician of terror—instructs his unwilling protégé in those moments when history is let off the leash.
Lights Out in the Reptile House is at once a dystopian political parable, a meditation on totalitarianism, and a moving coming-of-age story, as its protagonist struggles to understand his own values and meaning even in the most extreme of crucibles.
We often hear that no matter how good a story may be, it must be well-written to provide an enjoyable reading experience. Having put away many books for this very reason, I tend to agree with this idea. Lights Out in the Reptile House is an example of how the opposite is true, as well.
Jim Shepard’s writing is technically flawless. All the elements of literary fiction writing are present. His descriptions are vivid and effective. There are unexpected linguistic twists and turns, surprising aphorisms, and beautiful, paradoxical metaphors that will make you remember why you fell in love with reading to begin with.
So, why the low star rating?
I did not connect emotionally with the characters at all. Karel was a big of an enigma to me, even though we spent the entire book hovering around his head. I didn’t understand why he was so enamored with Leda, who was mean to him so often. I often forgot he was fifteen, because he acted (and was treated by most of the other characters) as if he were seven or eight. The rare sexual thought passing through his mind shocked me into remembering he was an adolescent, but other than that, he thought and behaved in a rather childish way. Had there been a reason for why this was, I would have been fine with that–after all, I don’t think all teenage protagonists have to be the bravest or the smartest to be interesting–but it just did not make sense.
I could have forgiven vague, unemotional characters had they been placed in a more concrete setting, but I was denied that as well. I understand why Shepard chose to leave so many details about where they are, who the Praetor really is and how he came to power, what The Party really aims to accomplish. We begin the book watching a meeting of the League of Young Mothers, but we never understand what this group is or why it is “semicompulsory.” This lack of information reflects the chaos of those living under Party rule. It manages to transfer confusion and uncertainty to the reader, so the method is obviously effective, but the book ends leaving so many questions unanswered.
Not to mention, the story finishes with absolutely no hope. In the interests of remaining spoiler-free, that’s all I’ll say. George Orwell does the same thing in 1984, one of my favorite books, but he does it in such a way that doesn’t make me feel like I’ve wasted hours of my life.
As much as I wanted this book to satisfy me, it just couldn’t quite get there. However, I’m on the fence when it comes to literary fiction. It’s always a toss-up whether I will like it or not. If you’re a more devoted fan of the genre, you will most likely enjoy this book. If you’re looking for another 1984 or Brave New World, though, you won’t find it here.
I received a complimentary copy from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
About the Author
Jim Shepard was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and is the author of six novels, including most recently Project X, and four story collections, including the forthcoming You Think That’s Bad (March 2011). His third collection, Like You’d Understand, Anyway, was a finalist for the National Book Award and won The Story Prize. Project X won the 2005 Library of Congress/Massachusetts Book Award for Fiction, as well as the ALEX Award from the American Library Association. His short fiction has appeared in, among other magazines, Harper’s, McSweeney’s, The Paris Review, The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, DoubleTake, the New Yorker, Granta, Zoetrope: All-Story, and Playboy, and he was a columnist on film for the magazine The Believer. Four of his stories have been chosen for the Best American Short Stories and one for a Pushcart Prize. He’s won an Artists’ Grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He teaches at Williams College and lives in Williamstown with his wife Karen, his three children, and two beagles.