The Record Keeper by Agnes Gomillion
Titan, pb, £8.99
Review by Megan Leigh @m_leigh_g
One of my favourite SF novels of all time, Kindred by Octavia Butler, explores issues around slavery while playing with classic time travel tropes. As such, when I read the blurb for Agnes Gomillion’s debut, The Record Keeper, I couldn’t wait to read it. The book appeared to tick a lot of boxes: dystopia, an examination of racial inequality, sci-fi technology, and a female protagonist! Count me in.
The novel follows the story of Arika Cobane, a record keeper in training. Having spent her entire life within the closeted and tightly regulated schoolhouse, Arika believes everything she is taught – that she is better than the worker classes and required to manage them in order to maintain peace. But when a new student arrives, Arika is forced to re-examine what she once took for granted.
“The old world had been ruled by the English, and not by accident. The English had dominated by force. For hundreds of years, they had operated under the belief that ruling Earth, to the exclusion of other races, was their birthright.”
The Record Keeper is an ambitious debut. Gomillion is intent on playing a long-game, with the first half of the book moving very slowly a glacial pace. Although Star Wars is an all-time favourite of mine, I’m not sure it worked in this instance. The last quarter of the book is then so wholly different from the rest it felt like I’d been transported to another story. It is obvious the book is setting Gomillion up for a series, but the lack of pay-off for all the time spent characterising Arika’s school friends in this book made much of the set-up for the novel unnecessary. So few of the characters in this novel take any initiative, and those that do are sidelined and fridged.
Arika, our protagonist and pov narrator, is irritatingly naive to the point of willfully refusing to see what’s right in front of her nose. While her actions are internally consistent, I wanted to slap her every time she swallowed the bullshit she is fed, played the victim, and failed to take control of her life. She has so many opportunities to choose to do the right thing but consistently takes a route of cowardice – the safe option. But all the while she convinces herself she is doing the best thing by the people. Although I found this frustrating in the extreme, Arika’s capacity for self-deception is something I am sure many of us will recognise. Unfortunately, I like my characters in fiction to be better than us real-world schmucks.
“It was easy to guess why she hid herself. She was a woman maintaining dominance among men, any one of which could best her in a physical altercation.”
There were other issues I had, usually involving lack of pay-off, the protagonist’s use of brutal force, and the casual disposal of side characters, but that isn’t to say the book doesn’t have anything to offer. The prose is highly readable and I found myself eager to pick it back up, despite my misgivings about Arika. And that is saying something. For a book where the main character we so wholly unlikeable (to me) and yet still enjoyable to read? Practically unheard of! And for all of Arika’s flaws, Hosea, her foil, makes up for them.
In the end, I found it difficult to put my finger on exactly what I enjoyed about The Record Keeper, as its flaws continued to push their way to the tip of my tongue. But I did undeniably enjoy it all the same. The book shows great promise in Gomillion and I’m very intrigued to see where she takes the next instalment – with a (hopefully) wiser Arika and more sci-fi elements.
Verdict: Though plagued with common debut-author foibles, The Record Keeper is intriguing and original.