One of Us by Craig Dilouie
Orbit, PB, £8.99
Reviewed by Sarah Deeming
A generation has been born with extreme genetic mutations. The result of a sexually transmitted disease, they are known as plague children. Parents unable to cope with their children’s deformities, reject them, sending them to state-run homes which are little more than dilapidated detention centres, hotbeds for abuse, neglect and slave labour. But as the children grow, they become more aware of themselves, the abilities that come with their mutations, and the injustice of their treatment. Tensions between plague children and normals are stretched, it won’t take much for the fragile peace to shatter. And then a normal child is killed and a plague child is blamed. Now the plague children are fighting for their lives and they have all the advantages.
This is a hard book with difficult themes of child abuse and neglect. For all the fantastical element of the plague children, this story is full of hard truths. History is littered with examples of mistreatment because a group of people look different on the most superficial level. At least the plague children have a way of fighting back that is extreme yet oddly satisfying in a grim and bloody way.
Another difficult theme is exploitation. There are layers of privilege and exploitation, wealthy white people at the top, the plague children at the bottom, and everyone else ranged in between them depending on their proximity to the plague children.
Perhaps the part I found the hardest to handle is the way those who want to help the plague children are treated by the rest of society. They are silenced, looked down on, and considered naïve for wanting to change things. There is no large scale desire to change, most people are happy with the status quo because there is always the plague children to look down on. The novel might be set in an alternate 1980s but it is uncomfortably familiar.
Sad and shaming in equal measure, this is not a completely bleak book. The plague children demonstrate compassion and self-control beyond that of the frightened “normals” which left me with hope. That said, this book is not for the faint-hearted, containing violence against minors. You have been warned.