The Offset by Calder Szewczak
Angry Robot Books, pb, £7.99
Reviewed by John C. Adams
The Offset is the debut novel of a writing team composed of Natasha Calder and Emma Szewczak. My proof copy was devoid of any information about either of the authors, which is a little unusual, but I discovered more online via the authors’ websites. They met while studying at Cambridge, and this is their first collaboration. Calder went on to study Creative Writing at Clarion West, and Szewczak researches contemporary representations of the Holocaust. This latter element to their lives provided a fascinating perspective as I read The Offset, and I was really glad that I had done some digging around before diving in because it greatly informed my reading of their novel.
The premise of the novel is that when you reach eighteen, you must decide which of your parents to sacrifice in an enforced attempt to keep the world’s population under control. My daughter turned eighteen just a few weeks before I read this novel, and I’m pretty sure her response to such a question would be to ask if she could get rid of both her mum and dad. Being allowed to throw her stepdad under the bus at the same time would be seen as something of a bonus, I’ve no doubt. It is an intriguing basis for a novel that, without apparently being marketed at a YA audience (since the Angry Robot website is very clear that they don’t offer this type of fiction), will speak to one of the great truths of young adult life: that you’d be delighted if your parents didn’t exist.
Miri is about to turn eighteen and must therefore imminently make the choice as to which mother she will save and which will die in the form of an electric shock. Her choice initially appears simple: she’s been estranged from Jac for several years and feels much more positively towards Alix.
Most dystopian novels focus either on a crackdown when a patently unfair system is put in place or feature an uprising against an unjust status quo. The Offset, however, was more about the relationships between Miri and her mothers. Alix carried the child, and Jac provided DNA that was altered to fulfil the role of sperm, so Miri is biologically related to them both. It was the appalling nature of Miri’s dilemma that formed the centrepiece of The Offset, without any sustained attempt to overthrow the policy but simply presenting it as inherently unreasonable.
The element I struggled with most, in a novel that was undeniably well written, was a tendency to present minor characters via titles such as The Archivist and The Thief. I also don’t really take to novels written in the present tense unless they are experimental works of literature, which this wasn’t. Other than that, The Offset was tightly crafted and a fascinating portrait of the dynamics of a female family faced with the daughter stepping across the line into adulthood.
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