The narrator of Sandra Newman’s magnificent third novel is a homeless teenager who jokes that the person who invented Beef-a-roni was “a valuable genius.” Standing atop the detritus of an abandoned future America, she is also, in fire and quality, the literary cousin of Antigone. Just as the latter braves death for filial love and higher laws, so does Ice Cream Star, illuminating with her faith the shrouded world she lives in.
Ice Cream Star’s country is the “Nighted States,” 80 years after a deadly epidemic (and possibly a nuclear conflict) triggers a mass evacuation. Its de-industrialized population, like that of Europe after the fall of Rome, is dispersed among a few cities, settlements and roving tribes, and composed entirely of black and brown children. All eventually die of “posies,” a disease characterized by black spots and coughing, which strikes by age 20. Ice Cream’s band of “Sengles,” rugged individualists led by her beloved older brother Driver, survives in the “Massa Woods” by hunting and scavenging. Driver, 18, begins to sicken shortly before the Sengles capture one of the Russian soldiers who forcibly recruit the country’s children. Noting the soldier’s advanced age of 30, 15-year-old Ice Cream determines to obtain a cure for posies from the Russians.
The reader is air-dropped into this dystopia by Ice Cream’s use of a mutation of African-American Vernacular English, infused with French and Spanish influences, and touches of antiquated style. Standard in her America, Ice Cream’s language is as potent and earthy as Chaucerian vernacular, poeticizing the Sengles’ life – of smoking, boozing, fighting, copulating, eating 80-year-old canned Beef-a-roni – into something paradisal: “Is dusking, and the birch trunks glamour white like paths of moon. A birch leaf yellowing here and there…Then Sengle town begin to smell between the trees. It be a sweetish stank.” One begins to think in this dialect (“ya, this book be precieuse bone”); it is as sweet and addictive as Ice Cream herself, who was named, she notes, for “Something Lost.”
The heroine at the centre of this epic traverses her woods like a female knight, armed with bow and arrow, accompanied by horse, hound, and Sengle “littles.” Faced with the constant threat of warrior gangs who enslave women, Ice Cream is undaunted, even after an attack. Wherever she goes, she conquers with wit and courageous love, and when the Sengles stumble upon the Russian operative, “Pasha Roo,” running out of a burning house, it is Ice Cream who, by placing herself between his cocked gun and Driver, persuades this “perilous beast” to let himself be taken.
Ice Cream Star, and her star qualities, eventually lead her into a position where, surrounded by powerful men, she manoeuvres to obtain the cure. But the harder she struggles in the world (“where no good child belong”), the more she becomes implicated in murders, lies, and unnecessary wars. And still Driver – who seems, in character, a likeness of Obama – fades, still more toils entangle her trustful Sengles, still more children die. The reader begins to worry that there is no cure, and that Pasha of the “chill uncolor” eyes, who keeps promising it, is a bad spirit – a vampire, as his fellow soldiers call him. The narrative darkens with each successive dead end, and as loss piles upon loss, it seems that Ice Cream’s idealism is not only being used by evil forces but mocked by an uncaring cosmos.
In this progression, the story lifts itself above conditions of time, place, and identity. We glimpse the post-9/11 world in the Russians who take photos of themselves grinning while committing atrocities, and in the religious fundamentalism of the “Panish” speakers who now control New York. Much of the action is a re-enactment of American history, with new players in old roles, and old events unfolding anew. This shape-shifting America, however, evokes images from around the world. By immersing the reader in a circular and unbounded nightmare that she cannot disown, the author obliges her to confront realities that she may never have known.
But this awe-inspiring work is greater than even this. In her relentless and ultimately irrational pursuit of a cure – for her country? for death itself? – Ice Cream Star’s “vally heart” beats so loudly on our behalf that, attaining tragic stature, she stands for humankind. She declares, in the book’s ambiguous conclusion, as she watches her country disappear from a Russian military boat: “And I know, inside this final loss, I going to save this place. I be small in all this blackness world, this ship of drunken vampires, but through my hearten wounds, I living yet, and all my love the same. Nor death been ever arguments to me…” This shining sword thrust is at the Night itself, even as it swallows our heroine up.
Aparna Sanyal is a writer and editor living in Toronto.