Sandra Newman’s third novel, The Country of Ice Cream Star, comes emblazoned with quotes from a panoply of big names. Kate Atkinson admires the book’s sophistication and ambition. Adam Foulds thinks it’s amazing. Kamila Shamsie finds it wonderfully inventive and astonishing. Benjamin Zephaniah thinks it’s a beautifully crafted masterpiece. Bidisha is drawn to the linguistic brilliance, the stylistic flair, the pulsing rhythm. What can Bookmunch possibly add to this rich tapestry of praise? Just one thin but crucial thread: it’s possible to read The Country of Ice Cream Star, agree with all of the comments above and not actually like the book all that much.
It is America, the future, civilisation has, we gather, largely come crashing down. Our fifteen year old heroine, Ice Cream Star, lives in a forest with a small group of children, led by her brother Driver. This group is known as the Sengles and, as Ice Cream informs us, the Sengles:
‘be a wandering sort. We never grown nothing from anything, never had no tato patch nor cornfield. Be thieves, and brave to hunt. A Sengle hungry even when he eat, even when he rich, he still want to grab and rob, he hungry for something he ain’t never seen nor thought of.’
There are three groups who neighbour close by, the Christings (who seem a sort of amalgam of Mormons and Catholics), the Nat Mass Armies led by New King Mamadou (who once upon a time everyone warred with but who have in recent years calmed down somewhat) and the population of Lowell Mill, who are led by El Mayor who has something of a crush on Ice Cream. At the opening of the novel, a group of Sengles find a Roo (a grown up Russian man) in a burning house and take him prisoner. The Roo, known as Pasha, gradually becomes more important, particularly in light of a radio message El Mayor picks up informing them that a Roo army is going to be coming, with a cure for the Posies (which is a disease that seems to be killing off all the children – Ice Cream’s brother Driver is suffering from it at the outset of the book) and a desire to recruit as many able-bodied people as they can find to fight in their wars. Deciding that they do want the cure (the narrative is largely driven by Ice Cream’s desire to find the cure and save her brother) but don’t want to fight in a Roo war, the Sengles join forces with El Mayor’s lot (after the Armies seem to join forces with the Roos and lay waste to the Christings, more or less) and set off to find somewhere safe to live (their plan being to find a safe place for the majority and then have Pasha and Ice Cream Star, or just Pasha, or Pasha and El Mayor, go off in search of a cure). Along the way, Ice Cream starts a bit of a thing with El Mayor even though (we learn) she has long had a thing with Mamadou (and even though Pasha, we start to gather, may have a thing for her too). Their journey is no quest, though, as they are first beset by the Armies who come in chase and then derailed by a community in New York who would raise Ice Cream Star up as the latest in a long line of Marias (a sort of flesh and blood incarnation of the Virgin Mary on Earth), with Pasha as her Christ (even though she refuses to fully partake in the ceremony that would cement her role by killing Pasha). There is then a fair amount of toing and froing (Ice Cream is asked to choose apostles so she draws on a small group of various characters we’ve met up to this point), some slightly Machiavellian behind the curtain shenanigans and, finally, a war, which we glimpse from quite a distance away (and also from close up, Ice Cream spending an afternoon or so in the trenches, as it were).
Now, as you probably gathered above, all of this comes to you via a made-up, infantilised patois full of yo this, and be that, with some made up words that you have to try and work out the meaning of and words that have obviously come from elsewhere and been appropriated (such as Ice Cream’s own name, she doesn’t know what ice cream actually is). There are times when it’s not always clear what is going on and you have to hang on by the skin of your teeth (which, in itself is fine, it’s to be expected in any kind of sci-fi – even though Ice Cream Star is more literary than typical sci-fi, more Atwood than Asimov). The problem, for this reader at any rate, is that Ice Cream Star tells too much. Like a lot of teenage girls, she overtalks, which across 600 or so pages gets a bit much. Her stories meander and her journey meanders and after a while (a short while) she becomes irritating. It’s interesting what Newman is doing, no doubt, and her heroine is interesting because she is so flawed, and the exploration of those flaws and Ice Cream’s own rationalisation and justification (and guilt and shame) for her actions provides the real meat of the novel – but it’s not a huge amount of fun. In fact, at times, The Country of Ice Cream Star can be a real grind. There were unfortunately vast swathes of the book I spent flicking ahead to see how long the chapter would last to see if I had the necessary gumption to get through it (and there were times, when a chapter stretched to say 20 pages or more when I’d put the book down and go and do something else until I thought, I’d best crack on with Ice Cream Star or I’ll never get it finished). There were also a couple of occasions when I put the book down and thought, I’m done, it’s beat me, I simply can’t get through it – but after a couple of days I went back and thought, no, I’ve read this much, I can read more. By the climax of the book (when, it felt to this reader, Newman’s grip on the material was arguably at its weakest – you can really feel the edit, Ice Cream Star apparently taken from a 900 page manuscript to a 600 page manuscript), the narrative reaches a kind of terminal velocity and the outcome (‘So this be how I… [major plot point]’) doesn’t feel entirely earned, especially given how Ice Cream (a) hasn’t contributed terrifically to the denouement and (b) is largely a compromised pragmatist doing what she needs to do to survive.
So. To conclude. It’s an ambitious piece of work. A massive undertaking. Newman deserves a great deal of credit. But there are problems with plotting. The book is ploddy when it should race. More effort should have been expended on creating a reading experience that the reader wishes to engage with. This reader came away with a sense that Newman and her editorial team were too busy patting themselves on the back for the linguistic derring-do to notice that not enough is happening quickly enough. The Country of Ice Cream Star is probably best viewed as YA but I’m not sure I know too many YA readers willing to battle with language to the degree required by Newman. I also think YA readers would be best off reading Riddley Walker because that does everything The Country of Ice Cream Star tries to do better and in half the time.
Any Cop?: It’s an admirable book, to be sure, but not entirely an enjoyable one.