YA's Answer to 'Lost' is Haunting, But Flawed
Lynne Matson's debut novel Nil (MacMillian) gives a whole new — and much creepier — meaning to "island time." Charley just woke up naked and alone on rocky ground in an unfamiliar location. After surviving for several days on her own, she meets up with Thad and his comrades, who let Charley know that she has landed on the island Nil. And Nil isn't some laid-back Caribbean island. It's in what they assume is another dimension, and its inhabitants only have 365 days to find a way off... or they die. Everyone who lands on Nil — which is made up only of teenagers and other warm-blooded animals, like zebras and grizzly bears — come via a shimmering gate that glides across the land's surface. And you leave the same way, by catching another gate. The catch? No one knows where the gates will appear, just that one to three gates will land at noon every day.
Matson's novel has dual narrators, Charley and Thad. The latter is approaching the end of his one-year stint on Nil. As soon as Charley lands on Nil, she is attracted to Thad, who, in turn, is attracted to her. The two fall in love, and their relationship is dangerously close to the frowned-upon "instalove" rampant in YA. Without knowing much about either Charley or Thad prior to Nil, it becomes hard to be wholly invested in their relationship, though they are both perfectly likable characters.
On Nil, the group of 20-or-so teenagers who crash land form a society, signing a covenant and agreeing to the rules for how people should get off the island. "Priority" inhabitants, the people who have been on the island the longest and are getting close to their end date, head up gate search teams with a group for support. Thad is one of those Priority people, and though I may not have been emotionally invested in his relationship with Charley, I was still intensely cheering for Thad in his journey to get off the island, wherever a gate may take him.
Though Charley and Thad may not have themselves been compelling characters, the concept behind their relationship was so intriguing, it's easy to forgive elements of their "instalove." With a hardcore end-date already stamped on their relationship, the story is able to go beyond the standard boy-meets-girl storyline and investigate what relationships are like in a place where you are completely uncertain of the future. In a place where time is compressed and relationships are accelerated. Sounds a lot like high school, doesn't it?
The novel may be propelled by a love story, but it's Nil and its mysteries that left me most captivated. In the history of Nil, people have left behind clues to catching gates, which Charley uses to try to save Thad. In a rock carving, someone has drawn a labyrinth, which one character differentiates from a maze by saying, "There's only one way in and one way out."
These historical artifacts, clues, and puzzles keep the novel moving, driving you to turn page after page to reach Nil's final conclusion. I had so many questions throughout the read, including, Why do only teenagers land if the gates can bring animals to Nil, too? And, How can these people can live in a society on an island, risking their lives, and not go all Lord of the Flies? What does that say about human nature?
The answers to these questions seem to surround fate, luck, and chance. Why are they there? Who is in control? Is Nil? Are the inhabitants? Or is it all just predetermined? Charley says:
Natalie once said there's no such thing as luck on Nil. She was wrong. Luck is personal; we all have our own. Sometimes it's great, sometimes it's bad, but it's yours, and it follows you wherever you go — even to Nil. And luck can change, because as my mama said, luck was a state of mind. Chance, on the other hand, is different. Chance is probability. My charts increased Thad's chances, but it hadn't changed his luck.
Thad, on the other hand, doesn't adhere to these thoughts of personal luck. Instead, he's a realist, or a pessimist, depending on how you see it. He attributes his fate to Nil's will.
If there's one thing about Nil that I get — I mean really get, way down deep in my core — it's that she's all about the timing.
This was Nil's playground, where Nil watched and cackled and called every last shot... Nil flashed gates where she pleased, using gates to change the game, bringing new contestants and threats to add to her fun. Right now Nil was enjoying herself way too much with us to let me go: watching us hope, watching us struggle.
It seems appropriate here to bring up the elephant in the room (already alluded to via gif) while discussing dueling philosophies: The mysterious island with a community of inhabitants who don't know where they are? It's sounding more than a bit like Lost. (Obligatory Charlie Pace line here:)
And this isn't necessarily a problem, but when characters bring up pop culture references, such as comparing their experiences to Survivor, you have to think, "But has any of them seen Lost? Because that would be an even more apt reference." It's a minor detail, but it takes readers out of the story.
I don't necessary love the novel Nil as a whole, but I loved the experience reading it. Nil thrives in its concept and — particularly toward the end — its pacing. With its later, shorter chapters, you can practically hear the tick-tock of Nil's clock, as Thad would say, which really amped up the tension. But it left so many questions unanswered and fell flat on relationships and characterizations. But, it was such a fun read, I couldn't put it down. Don't dig too deep, though, as you're likely to come up with questions and disappointment.
Image: Lynne Matson