Spare and Found Parts
Sarah Maria Griffin
Titan, 416 pages
Review: Georgina Merry
In a post-apocalyptic Ireland where computer technology is banned, Nell Crane, a teen who struggles to fit in, becomes obsessed with building herself a companion. She will stop at nothing to make her fantasy a reality, even if it means rejecting the rules put in place to protect society
Many inhabitants of Black Water Bay were left maimed after The Turn, a deadly epidemic believed to have been caused by advanced technology and artificial intelligence. The plague which ravaged the populace is gone, but electronics and digital tech, referred to as “code”, are outlawed for fear of triggering a second outbreak. Clockwork mechanics are embraced, but all tech from before The Turn is considered blasphemous. To ensure everyone’s safety, the healed live in The Pasture while the healing, those who are physically blighted, are confined to The Pale; a city we infer was once Dublin. Every citizen is expected to contribute something to society when they come of age and must present their idea in a public forum. Most residents sport artificial limbs or are missing superficial body parts, but not Nell.
Unlike everyone else, Nell’s modifications are on the inside. She’s marked as different by the scar that runs from her chin to her stomach and her audible, ticking heart. Her father and recently-deceased mother are famous for their scientific skill and contribution to Black Water Bay society. Julian Crane’s revolutionary designs for artificial limbs keep them both in high standing, allowing him to conduct mysterious experiments in his laboratory. However, Nell is weighed down by her differences and the looming obligation of providing a contribution of her own. Her greatest fear is that her inventive skill may never live up to her that of her parents. While scavenging for parts, she finds a prosthetic hand which ignites a desire to construct a partner, be they boy or girl, from salvage. Determined to succeed, she uses whatever means possible to achieve her goal, including theft and deception. While she’s confident she can build a body, she requires more advanced to tech to replicate consciousness. With the assistance of Oliver Kelly, a boy she’s loathed since childhood, she meets an underground group of rebels set on bringing back code. Using an old tablet-style phone as a brain, she brings life to Io, an eloquent, observant, intelligent automaton. But her creation is a catalyst, and Nell’s life is turned upside down as she uncovers the uncomfortable truth about her parents.
Closer to the sci-fi end of steampunk, as opposed to the Victorian alt-reality characteristic of the genre, Spare and Found Parts is set in a far-flung dystopian future. The story is told via an unconventional approach of switching between second and third person narrative perspective. This occurs intermittently, and it’s a technique that’s difficult to pull off, yet Griffin does so with aplomb. What makes it work well is the way in which the relevance of these narrative shifts is revealed to the reader toward the latter end of the book. Everything comes together neatly in a perfectly designed story that’s thoroughly enjoyable. Saying that, not a lot actually happens. As far as most YA is concerned, the plot is fairly inactive. It’s the prose that does the heavy lifting. The exquisite, poetic style is poignant and delicate without resorting to superfluous adjectives or flowery imagery. It keeps the momentum moving forward with grace. It’s a treat to read something written so beautifully.
Another commendable aspect worth mentioning is how well the author has represented diversity without an agenda. Nell is a bisexual woman of colour, Oliver has same-sex parents, and almost everyone has a physical disability of some sort, be it a missing leg or eye. These have little bearing on the plot, other than the biomechanical inventions, and are never laboured or conveyed through overt means. They’re merely part of the characters’ identity, as is the way in real life. This simple approach to inclusion is understated but tremendously effective. Here’s hoping this is a sign of what we can come to expect from future YA publications.
When it comes to protagonist Nell, the reader is dragged through a gauntlet of emotions ranging from intense irritation to strong admiration. She’s flawed, impatient, and difficult to please. There are occasions when it’s hard to respect her choices, but equally there are times when it’s all too easy to get caught up in her driving passion. Her response to hearing songs from before The Turn is blissful and magnificently conveyed. We hear the music as she does, fresh and unknown, even though we’re given clues as to what the songs are. By the end she’s confident, strong, and we can’t help but be happy for her.
Unlike Nell, Io, the artificial boy, has the ability to comprehend his life and the world around him with compassion. Although, understanding how he comes to have such a distinct personality in such a short space of time requires suspending one’s disbelief. Nevertheless, he’s charming and humane to the point of highlighting the ignorance of other characters. Then there’s Oliver Kelly, who makes no secret of his desire to marry Nell. His dogged pursuit of Nell inspires both revulsion and pity. Yet, as the story unfolds he grows more likeable. The other characters, including Nell’s father, are less memorable, but this is a minor grievance with an otherwise splendid cast. If you appreciate gorgeous writing and unpredictable storyline then Spare and Found Parts is absolutely worth your time.