Review

The Different Girl

by Gordon Dahlquist

Veronika has never known anything but the island. She lives there with her three sisters, Isobel, Eleanor and Caroline. They look exactly alike, except for their hair color. Two caretakers take the girls on walks, put them to sleep at night and ask them lots of questions. They record their answers in a black notebook, a rectangle that lights up when touched. Their lives are peaceful and full of new things to learn.

"Written from Veronika’s point of view, Gordon Dahlquist’s THE DIFFERENT GIRL benefits from a fascinatingly unreliable narrator...This book makes readers responsible for extracting not only plot details but thematic resonance, and this is the reason that, when the final page is turned, the reader’s mind continues to reel."

This quiet existence begins to crumble on the night of the storm. The girls spend the night indoors, because to get wet is to incur serious harm to their bodies. On their morning walk, Veronika finds an odd thing curled up in the grass. It’s a girl, like Veronika and her sisters. But something about her is different. Her skin is darker, darker than the peanut butter that Irene spreads on her sandwiches. Her hair has a different texture; it moves more freely when a breeze passes through it. When she speaks, her voice has a different rhythm and a different accent. Her fingers are thinner. She has more of them. Later, Veronika finds out that she can wake up on her own after she has been put to sleep. Veronika wonders how she learned to do that.

The different girl is called May, which Veronika finds strange. The name has far fewer syllables than the names given to herself and her sisters. The first time May sees Veronika and her sisters, she screams. May has heard stories about girls like them. Veronika doesn’t know what she means by this, but this different girl is intriguing, and Veronika wants to figure her out. Veronika even wants to take care of her when she is sad and scared. As May and Veronika begin to forge a friendship, May begins to worry about if and when she will be able to go home.

Written from Veronika’s point of view, Gordon Dahlquist’s THE DIFFERENT GIRL benefits from a fascinatingly unreliable narrator. Veronika reports the world as she sees it. Her sentences are short and straightforward. She describes things an average person would not normally register, such as patterns in nature and anomalies in the wood on the dock. With Veronika as narrator, even the most heart-pounding moments unfold with an eerie quiet. This only adds to the power of the scenes. Veronika reveals herself through her comparisons of herself and her sisters to May. Since Veronika conceptualizes herself and her sisters as typical girls, a fair assumption to make based on her social isolation, the reader must piece together the nature of their appearance and structure.

Since Veronika provides the only window into this strange island utopia, it is difficult to gauge the true intentions of Irene and Robert, her caretakers. When May enters their lives, the question becomes even more urgent. Whatever their intentions with the girls, it is clear that they are experimenting with the limits of artificial cognition. Veronika explains that she and Caroline are what they call “tests,” and Isobel and Eleanor are called “controls.” Veronika doesn’t know what this means, but anyone who has taken a middle school science class does. (Caroline dreams, and Veronika sometimes breaks rules or disobeys orders, even though she struggles to explain why exactly she does it.) Although Robert sometimes seem stern when he questions the girls to test their learning and Irene can put any of the girls to sleep with the push of a button, they never quite seem menacing. Until, that is, May reports that she overheard them discussing her future. If a rescue ship were to arrive, would they allow her to take it? Or has she seen too much? Still, Irene and Robert seem restless and tortured by their impending decision.

There is no final monologue to be found in these pages, no single character who reveals all to Veronika. Even in the final scene, much of the past, future, and level of humanity of these characters defy easy definition. Dahlquist manages to leave hints here and suggestions there that allow readers to piece together a satisfactory idea of the characters’ backstory, but some of it remains conjecture. This book makes readers responsible for extracting not only plot details but thematic resonance, and this is the reason that, when the final page is turned, the reader’s mind continues to reel.

Perhaps Dahlquist became a master of the slow and incomplete reveal as an acclaimed playwright. The only tools available to the playwright are the voices of his characters, and restricting himself to the perspective of one character with a very unusual worldview in THE DIFFERENT GIRL allows this skill to shine. Dahlquist has also written a trilogy of fantasy/science fiction novels for adults that begin with THE GLASS BOOKS OF THE DREAM EATERS.

Because of the arrival of the different girl and the events that follow, Veronika and her sisters push the divide between artificial intelligence and humanity. Is humanity something that we are born with, or is it something that we all have to learn?

Reviewed by Caroline Osborn on March 7, 2013

The Different Girl
by Gordon Dahlquist