Benighted by Kit Whitfield
So I loved Kit Whitfield’s In Great Waters. The characters, the world, the story… all of it was fantastic, and I have a fond memory of running errands while frantically wondering what was happening to Henry and Anne. As finals and summer descended, I decided it was time to visit Whitfield’s first novel, Benighted. In Great Waters was so deftly and well-handled that I was really looking forward to it. And then it took me three and a half weeks to get through the thing. Oh, not because of finals. Because I did not want to spend any time in this world with this protagonist.
Benighted takes place in a world where lycanthropy is the norm. Non-lycans, derisively called “barebacks”, form a minority, and are conscripted into Department for the Ongoing Regulation of Lycanthropic Activities at a young age. Descended from the Spanish Inquisition, its main purpose is to contain the lycanthropes who aren’t able—or even refuse—to participate in lock-up on the full moon. When Lola Galley’s friend and co-worker loses a hand and is then murdered, the DORLA agent sets to work to bring the truth to light. But the truth is never quite what it seems, and as Lola finds herself involved with a lyco, she might be losing objectivity…
The world of Benighted is interesting and Whitfield has clearly put a lot of time and effort into it, just as she did with In Great Waters. The heritage of DORLA is intriguing, as well as the views of lycos towards non-lycos, although there are some problems with worldbuilding (non-lycos cannot pass for arbitrary reasons). However, where she avoided the dreaded info dump there, Benighted is absolutely rife with them. There are several scenes, in fact, where Lola is in church and simply reflecting—which is actually a pretty decent set-up for any necessary info-dump—but the tangent keeps you from feeling any urgency or tension in the story. There’s also the issue of establishment, or lack thereof. A lot of stuff that gets covered at the end of the novel has absolutely no set-up at the beginning of the novel. For instance, late in the novel, we’re told Lola loves music and played as a kid to set up a brief moment, which is nice—except that it’s the first we hear of that. I don’t think I can mention any that wouldn’t spoil a potential reader, but, as a reader, I felt empty when the climax of the novel rested upon freshly acquired information which should have, but did not, informed the beginning of the novel at all. But all of these are exacerbated by the sheer unlikeability of the protagonist.
I loathed Lola May. At the beginning, Ms. Galley had every reason for my sympathy: DORLA, in the world of Benighted, is set up as understaffed and wildly corrupt, so there’s abuse present pretty much everywhere, on top of the abuse hurled at non-lycos by lycos. The fact that she has to work with a man who sexually abused her while they were in the DORLA creches as kids is the least of her problems, quite frankly. (This plot point is not handled well, to say the least.) But Lola burned through all that sympathy pretty quickly with her attitude. Throughout the entire novel, all Lola does is hate everything (including herself), push away people who try to love her, and internally snark on everything. It’s like hanging out with a sullen teenager for a little over five hundred pages, and you can’t help but sympathize with Lola’s boyfriend, Paul, who gets snapped at whenever he attempts to do something nice for her. I think Whitfield is trying to portray a damaged woman who has faced prejudice and oppression all her life, but there are no redeeming characteristics here at all. And I think part of the problem is the fact that Whitfield appears to be having difficulty getting into the headspace of someone in a minority—as she says in the interview at the end of the novel, “I think writing from imaginative projection rather than personal experience can give a kind of purity to the story: it won’t have the specific trappings of one minority or another, so it becomes more about minority status in general” (523).
Supernatural fare has had its share of exploring minority issues through such “pure” allegories (what a choice of words!). Part of the reason the X-Men are so popular with teenagers is because mutants work as both an allegory for puberty and any minority group. In writing an X-Men story, a writer can address different kinds of oppression; I was quite pleased to see the latest film deal with passing as a member of the majority and the consequences of co-opting that privilege, along with the usual exploration of the two approaches one can take towards oppression (separate or assimilate). But here? Oh, boy. The climax involves Lola accusing a man of trying to make children like her, which would, according to her, damn them to the exact same hard life of abuse she herself faced. It’s as if she can’t even conceive of challenging the inherently flawed system of DORLA, which exacerbates the oppression of non-lycos. The worst part is that the man she’s accusing, the man we’re told is the villain of the story, is proposing a solution to help non-lycos in such a way that the system doesn’t need to be dismantled to do so. It’s not merely the fact that Lola can’t conceive of challenging the system, but when she’s presented with a way to challenge the system that oppresses her, she refuses it. In short, it’s a member of the majority trying to make the world a better place for non-lycos, while our non-lyco protagonist twiddles her thumbs on that front while railing against the system. The man is by no means a good person—in fact, he’s awful—but he was instantly miles more sympathetic than Lola because he was at least actively trying to make the world a better place for non-lycos. Even if the system in Benighted cannot be changed or beaten, the novel would have been vastly improved by Lola dealing with that and deciding to work with (or even game) the system. For a novel dealing with a minority, minority issues—beyond “look how prejudice and oppression can break a person!”—are just not dealt with here, and that makes me so incredibly frustrated. And want to watch X-Men: First Class again. (Which, admittedly, doesn’t take much pushing.)
Plus, Lola hates dogs. How can anyone actively hate a dog? (I have a facial scar from a dog and I still adore them! We get each other, man.)
Bottom line: Benighted has some potential, but its thoroughly unlikeable protagonist and absolutely frustrating handling (or lack thereof) of minority issues makes it an absolute no-go. Avoid.
I rented this book from the public library.
- Whitfield, Kit. Benighted. New York: Del Rey Books, 2006. Print.