Seventeen-year-old Lena can’t wait until her eighteenth birthday when she will be “cured” of the disease, “amor deliria nervosa”. She’s counting down the days until the government mandated “procedure”, after which she will be “happy and safe forever”, never having to know pain or suffering again. Like all citizens, Lena will be paired with a suitable boy from her own social class and background, and after a few years of college they will marry and have children.
In this dystopian U.S. set in the near future, children are told tales of “Invalids”, people who never received the “cure” and live beyond the borders, in the Wilds. Kids grow up believing the operation may hurt a little, but that it is for their own good since love was the infection that was destroying the world before the United States closed its borders and shut itself off from an outside world ravaged by war, famine and disease -- all caused by love, say adults.
Love is illegal now, and any demonstration of affection, even between mother and child, is perceived as repellant in this colourless, antiseptic world devoid of all emotion. Poetry no longer exists, music is lackluster, and boys and girls attend segregated schools and obey a 9 p.m curfew. Even history and literature have been rewritten, with Romeo and Juliet adapted and taught in high school as a cautionary tale against the dangers of love, “the deadliest of all deadly things: it kills you both when you have it and when you don’t”.
Lena is happy with the way the government keeps the people safe from the infection, how the laws protect the people from themselves. It’s beyond her why some people resist the procedure. More than anything, Lena doesn’t want to end up like her mother. In fact, she’s ashamed of her for having been so crazed by love, soiling Lena’s own reputation by committing the worst taboo of all: suicide
But Lena’s safe, predictable world begins to unravel when she meets Alex, a handsome security guard. Initially she resists the strong pull the sensitive and mysterious young man exudes on her, angry at him and at herself for even feeling such forbidden feelings, but eventually she succumbs to his charms, catapulted by the riptide of love.
It is through Alex and her best friend Hana that Lena begins to see her world for what it is: a world without hate, yes, but also a colourless, joyless world, a world ruled by fear; a world without meaning. On the night Lena risks her life to race off to an illegal party to tell Hana and her friends the regulators are raiding homes, she learns the truth about the government and starts to see them for what they really are: a gang of brutal, mindless thugs.
Oliver is a skilled writer of gorgeous descriptions, though she tends to overdo it on the similes. When I began reading I was impressed with her style, the deliberate depiction of Lena as a dull, painfully conservative and unquestioning character, as well as the artful way in which Oliver creates a cultural and literary cannon for her dystopian world. Unfortunately, the plot becomes less engaging as the pacing stagnates after Lena’s first meeting with Alex. After coming to an almost complete standstill, the plot revs up again for a breathless, heartbreaking yet hopeful finale in the vein of contemporary dystopian YA thrillers like The Hunger Games. Also a little suspect is that despite spending so much time alone together in private, Lena and Alex would not ever get beyond kissing. Even for someone who knows little about the birds and the bees, surely she would be curious? And, I ask you, what adolescent boy would not even consider going further? The character of Alex, though lovable, is just a little too perfect.
With Delirium Lauren Oliver has created a smart story with traces of Lois Lowry’s The Giver, though not as powerful. Nonetheless, the novel is a clever commentary on our far right politicians who rule by fear.