Veronica Roth's Divergent is a difficult book to ignore if you have the YA dystopia bug. The five star reviews number in their hundreds and with its sequel Insurgent imminent and The Hunger Games - the YA dystopia against which all others are currently judged - riding high at the box office and in the book lists, to not read Divergent seems somewhat rude. Therefore, not wishing to be impolite, I took the plunge.
Divergent takes place some time in the future in a city that was once Chicago. Every citizen now lives as a member of one of five factions, each defined by their overriding personality trait: Abnegation (selfless), Amity (kind), Candor (honest), Erudite (seekers of knowledge), Dauntless (brave). Each faction contributes to society in accordance with this trait. For example, members of Abnegation rule, Amity members are peacemakers and farmers and the Dauntless police this world. But there are those who fall outside the Factions, living a life worse than death as the Factionless. They drive the buses.
At the age of 16, the young are assessed to determine which Faction they suit but they must still make the choice of Faction on their own. Most opt for their home Faction but there are some who make a jump, turning their backs on their families. One such girl is our heroine. Known as Beatrice in Abnegation, she picks the name of Tris in her chosen Faction of Dauntless, although her fellow initiates name her `Stiff'. Divergent follows the initiation or training sessions that Tris and her friends (and the not so friendly) must undergo before they are selected to be members of Dauntless or, if they fail, cast out to be Factionless.
Through these trials, during which the initiates are taken to their very limits in physical and mental torture, each inflicting the same on their classmates, Tris learns that there may be an alternative Faction. Those initiates who don't perform as they should in the sessions may well be Divergent and, should that be discovered, they will be dead shortly afterwards. That is because they can beat the system.
Without doubt, this is a pacey novel. It's not a short book but Divergent is very difficult to put down. This is largely because of Tris - she has a habit of manipulating her way into our care. She's 16 but she constantly stresses how young she looks, how small she is. And in describing the truly horrible rituals she undergoes, it's difficult not to feel outrage on her behalf and sympathy for her suffering and admiration for her bravery. This is increased as we watch a girl emerge from self-sacrificing Abjugation rules to being able to express herself with tattoos, colourful clothes, even jumping off a train just for the thrill of it. Throw in a love interest that is delicately dealt with - no Twilight angst here - and you're going to care for young Tris.
Despite my strong feelings for Tris, I found Divergent a frustrating novel. There is no sense of the world at all. This is a big failing for a dystopian novel to my mind. Part of the fun is finding oneself in a familiar world transformed and distorted. We're told it is Chicago but this isn't a recognisable place or even environment. There's little description of Dauntless or any of the other factions. We're briefly told that Dauntless is dark, tall towers are mentioned, canyons frighten and trains travel outside the Factions but there is very little other than that. There is no sense of the state of the place. And what about outside? What about the rest of the world?
The idea that society can be divided into such convenient Factions is not believable. It seems preposterous to me that anyone could be anything other than Divergent. The fact that the novel presents inter-Faction fighting doesn't help the sense that this division could never happen. And where are all the adults? There's barely a sense of them in Dauntless.
Tris might be a fascinating heroine but the repetitive insistence on her small stature and undeveloped, childlike appearance doesn't tally with her increased strength and makes her relationship with Four incongruous and a little uncomfortable. She is also not always likeable - as the novel progresses there are actions that are not necessarily forgiveable. I wonder if they will be remembered in Insurgent or if they are already forgotten.
My main problem with Divergent though is the fact that the vast majority of it comprises the ritual trials that Tris and the others must undergo in order to be accepted as Dauntless. This means hundreds of pages of teenagers being forced to fight each other literally senseless in ugly duels as well as drug-induced confrontations with their greatest fears, facing a multitude of different horrendous ways of meeting a terrifying, painful death. Violence spreads outside the Pit, young people are reduced to the depths of despair while others are tormented by memories of abusive parents. It's all rather... unsavoury. As for the finale, it felt, to me, rushed and surprise-free.
Nevertheless, despite these rather major gripes, I read Divergent quickly and I will read Insurgent when it's released in May. There is a great deal of promise here and I was frustrated that the novel as a whole didn't live up to that potential. Perhaps Insurgent will prove a pleasant surprise.