Next weekend I’ll be attending Continuum, a speculative fiction convention held in Melbourne. Whenever I’m attending a convention, I always like to try to review something by one of the Guests of Honour. This year, Continuum is playing host to Alison Evans, one of Australia’s up-and-coming talents in YA SFF. Their debut novel Ida won the Victorian Premier’s People’s Choice Award and was shortlisted for this year’s Aurealis Awards.
The story is about Ida, a young woman with the ability to go back in time and revisit any decision she’s ever made. The decision can be as trivial as which type of shampoo she buys to something as important as choosing to drive another route in order to avoid a fatal car crash. However, one day Ida finds herself saddled with the consequences of a decision she’d previously tried to avoid. Then she starts traveling back in time against her will.
This is a book about vulnerable, queer teenagers. Life hasn’t been kind to Ida and her friends. Although she and her father get by, their income is low. She makes ends meet by working as a barista at a tourist park, but struggles to find a better job. The futility of the search and the weight of her father’s well-meaning expectations hasn’t been good for her self-esteem. Her partner is also struggling. Daisy is genderqueer and suffers a difficult home life as a result. In contrast to Ida’s father, theirs has difficulty accepting them and there is subtext that he has been emotionally abusive. Daisy frequently stays with Ida to escape. Ida’s cousin, Frank, likewise finds refuge with Ida and her family. Frank is transgender and, as with Daisy, has a father who has difficulty accepting this. Frank’s father seems to blame Ida, though it’s never quite clear why. Together, they are a beleaguered group. Without many friends, they tend to stick together. At the same time, there’s a sense that they keep themselves separate, choosing to hold their troubles to themselves rather than confide in each other. They support each other, but silently, and there’s a sense of fragility as they each wait for their personal axe to fall.
The story also features some genderqueer adults. Damaris has similar abilities to Ida and is charged with hunting down the teen before the situation gets out of control. Her genderqueerness is completely incidental to the story, but having multiple genderqueer characters allows for a variety of portrayals. For example, Damaris uses female pronouns in contrast to Daisy’s use of they. Damaris’ boss presents as predominantly masculine and uses masculine pronouns, but nevertheless identifies as genderqueer. While these adults don’t entirely have their life together, they’re not in the same fragile position as Ida and her friends, helping to move the story away from tragic queer overtones.
Unfortunately, the thread with Damaris is a weak point of the story, existing mostly to provide Ida with a couple of key pieces of information. There’s very little sense of the organisation for which Damaris works, beyond being a bureaucratic environment. Damaris herself fares better, thanks to more time on the page, but there’s little to connect with on an emotional level. Her focus is largely on Ida and she resents the way her boss’s incompetence has made her job more difficult. Given that the book’s length sits at the border between novel and novella, there was definitely space for a bit more worldbuilding.
The speculative elements of the story seem at first to be confined to Ida’s time loops. The story is set in contemporary Melbourne, and, aside from Damaris, Ida is the only one who displays any kind of unusual ability. However, as the story progresses it becomes apparent that there are some elements of slow-building psychological horror involved. A sense of unease is effectively built through small details, such as stains on the wall reappearing or multiplying. Ida finds notes in her own handwriting that she doesn’t remember making, some written in a code she doesn’t understand. This escalates to bigger things, such as characters disappearing entirely from reality. The already precarious nature of Ida’s life makes these changes all the more alarming, as anchors she’d come to count on start to become unmoored. The physical setting also adds to the sense of unease; the isolation of Ida’s rural home in the woods becomes less of a comfort and more of a Gothic set piece, gradually becoming more decrepit and cold as the rain sets in.
I had some mixed feelings about the ending. On one hand, it felt somewhat anticlimactic after all the suspense and it was hard to see the significance without a closer read of the beginning. On the other hand, it felt in keeping with the book’s theme about the impact of small decisions. There was some symbolism to flag the moment, but I nevertheless felt it could have used some additional weight.
Nevertheless, Ida is a notable sci-fi debut and I’m keen to hear more from Alison at Continuum later this week.