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Ellen Booraem – The Unnameables

April 23, 2010

41. The Unnameables by Ellen Booraem (2008)

Length: 318 pages
Genre: Young Adult Dystopian

Started: 10 April 2010, hour 10 of the read-a-thon
Finished: 10 April 2010, hour 13 of the read-a-thon

Where did it come from? Bookmooch.
Why do I have it? Blame for this one rests squarely on Memory’s review.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 02 February 2009.

What’s in a name? If
you’re on Island, it can be
a heck of a lot.

Summary: There is an island – named Island – where people live happy, productive, useful lives, and everything and everyone is Named according to their purpose, according to the wisdom of the Book. On an island full of Carvers and Bakers and Weavers, Medford Runyuin has always been an outcast; washed ashore from the mainland as a baby, he was cared for but never really fit in. Because, apart from not having a proper Name, Medford also has a secret – a secret that is not only Unnamed, but also Unnameable – a secret which, if discovered, would certainly get him exiled from Island forever. Medford lives quietly on his own outside of town, attempting to be Useful… until he meets the Goatman. The Goatman is like no one Medford has ever met – half man, half goat, owner of the world’s smelliest dog, an ability to call up the wind but an inability to control it, a penchant for eating napkins, and a tendency to speak his mind about the very things that make Medford most uncomfortable. The Goatman is almost certainly something Unnameable, but how can Medford keep him a secret when he’s already guarding so many secrets of his own?

Review: This book was totally fascinating, and thoroughly bizarre. I’m having a hard time classifying it into a genre other than Young Adult. It’s certainly a dystopia, but the lack of technology and the old-timey nature of Island makes it feel almost more like historical fiction than science fiction. And then the appearance of the Goatman makes it… what? Fantasy? (I suppose it’s somewhat ironic that I’m worrying over the exact proper classification of a book about the perils of everything needing to be properly Named.) In any case, the two adjectives I used to describe the book break down along the genre lines; the dystopia is fascinating, and the Goatman makes things incredibly bizarre, but after a while, they start to work together to form a whole that is more than the sum of its parts.

The allegorical lesson of the story is not hard to pick out, nor is it a particularly hard one to learn, but it’s also not really a theme I’ve often seen brought up in young adult fiction (and certainly never in this way.) The closest comparison is probably to Lois Lowry’s Gathering Blue (the sequel to The Giver), although I thought The Unnameables did a much better job of providing a satisfactory ending. Not everything gets explained – most notably the origin of the Goatman – but by the time I got to the ending, my initial sense of “What the hell…? There’d better be a good explanation for this…” had faded, and I couldn’t see how you could have told the story in any other way.

The characterizations and the worldbuilding were equally well-done; Booraem creates a society that is at once very familiar and yet just enough “off” so as to be totally unsettling, but she grounds it by creating characters (particularly Medford) that are recognizable and real… but then she shakes the reader out of their comfort zone again by introducing the Goatman. It’s all at a level that is accessible for mid-grade readers without talking down to them… but at the same time, the story is intriguing enough to keep adults engaged. It’s all very finely balanced and well-done, and I look forward to reading whatever Booraem writes next. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: I’d recommend this story to fans of dystopian fiction (or just those who like well-imagined stories) from mid-grade on up; there’s nothing in the content that would be inappropriate for someone old enough to handle the length, and I think it’s one of those rare books that successfully makes the crossover into adult readership as well.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Links: Ellen Booraem’s website, in which she says she’s got another book coming out next spring. Yay!

Other Reviews: Stella Matutina, Utter Randomonium
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: It is an orderly island.

Cover Thoughts: Wow, this is the third purply-brown cover this week. I didn’t particularly like it when I started the book – it admittedly doesn’t tell you much about the book on its own – but now that I’ve finished, I think it’s perfect.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. April 23, 2010 6:36 am

    This sounds like a really great YA novel. I’ve added to my wish list!

  2. April 23, 2010 9:53 am

    I like some dystopian fiction, but I wouldn’t want to make a steady diet of it. I’ll jot this title down.

    • April 23, 2010 1:11 pm

      bermudaonion – I agree, too much dystopian fiction gets wearing. This one might be good, though, since it’s part dystopian but part a lot of other things, too.

  3. April 23, 2010 9:56 am

    This sounds excellent. I love books that are hard to classify into a particular genre because that tells me the author was more concerned with story than particular conventions. Excellent! Thanks for the review!

    • April 23, 2010 1:11 pm

      Trisha – That’s a very good point re: story vs. genre conventions, and one that I will have to keep in mind.

  4. April 23, 2010 10:59 am

    Sounds good! I’ll keep in mind as I’m reading it that I may not be afforded good explanations for things at the end. :P

    • April 23, 2010 1:13 pm

      Jenny – No, probably not, although I found that by the time I got to the end I didn’t *need* the explanations so badly anymore, if that makes sense? Still, if you’re reading the end first, it might not provide as many answers as you want it to.

  5. Teresa Rolfe Kravtin permalink
    April 24, 2010 10:12 am

    Great review!

  6. May 17, 2010 12:27 am

    I’m so glad you enjoyed it! Sadly, I don’t think it’s been picked up for paperback publication yet, but I’m hoping it happens eventually. I’ve got a few people I want to give this to, once it’s in a slightly more affordable format.

  7. lizz permalink
    March 27, 2012 5:49 pm

    how does the book end?

  8. Jessi Peterson permalink
    July 3, 2012 5:40 pm

    Booktalking this tonight – I love the cover art, but wonder if it is offputting? We’ll see if it gets scarfed up after:)

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