The Other Valley by Scott Alexander Howard is a work of dystopian speculative fiction. Think Brave New World meets The Handmaid’s Tale and you will have a small inkling of the scope and tenor of the book. The narrative voice is that of the main character, sixteen-year-old Odile. Odile and her mother live in a small town in a picturesque valley, and Odile describes the seemingly bucolic setting as follows:
Our small town in the middle was nestled against the lake, which stretched like a finger up and down the page. The mountains surrounding us were tall and empty. To the left of the mountains was an identical small town, on the shore of an identical lake. To the right, it was the same: the mountains, the lake, the town again. After each valley came another. The towns repeated in both directions, east and west… In addition to the valleys’ natural borders, each town was encircled by a fence…
We are later told that their town and valley are vigilantly protected by enforced borders, restricting movement in and out of the area. The town and valley to the east are an identical representation of her town, complete with the same individuals but twenty years in the future. The town and valley to the west are an identical representation of her town, complete with the same individuals but twenty years in the past.
In the valley, all sixteen-year-olds are streamed into apprenticeships and careers. Family connections, rigorous testing, examinations and essays are required as a part of this process. Odile is being considered for the elite Conseil process which, if she is successful, will open doors to more prestigious appointments. The ultimate career goal is to become a Conseiller, one among a distinguished rank of individuals who determine whether applications to leave the valley are permitted.
On the rare occasion that someone is permitted to visit or leave the valley, they are escorted by a member of the Gendarmie and are masked and gowned to hide their identities. Odile unwittingly witnesses a visiting group of such masked individuals, but when a mask slips, she recognizes the mother of one of her dearest friends. She knows that the parents of her friend have come from another valley to visit and realizes that something awful must be about to happen.
Odile shares this encounter with a teacher who is shepherding her through the Conseil process and, in so doing, sets in motion a series of unpredictable and tragic events. Odile is sworn to secrecy and is then forced to make a series of moral choices regarding protecting her friend, as well as her own personal survival and preserving the natural order, or whether she will dare to escape into the past to change the future.
On the surface, Howard’s tale is a wistful narrative that touches upon coming of age, free will, love and grief, and simmers with a soft dreamlike thoughtfulness. The subtext, however, is more provocative and Howard encourages the reader to reflect on contingency and the relationship between past, present and future. An accomplished and pensive meditation wrapped up in a delightful work of fiction. Recommended.
About the Author
Scott Alexander Howard lives in Vancouver, British Columbia. He has a PhD in philosophy from the University of Toronto and was a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard, where his work focused on the relationship between memory, emotion, and literature. The Other Valley is his first novel.
- Publisher : Simon & Schuster (Feb. 27 2024)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 304 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1668023563
- ISBN-13 : 978-1668023563
Lucy E.M. Black is the author of The Marzipan Fruit Basket, Eleanor Courtown, and Stella’s Carpet. The Brickworks will be released in October 2023. Her award-winning short stories have been published in Britain, Ireland, USA and Canada in literary journals and magazines, including Cyphers Magazine, the Hawai’i Review, The Antigonish Review and others. She is a dynamic workshop presenter, experienced interviewer and freelance writer. She lives with her partner in the small lakeside town of Port Perry, Ontario, the traditional territory of the Mississaugas of Scugog Island, First Nations.