(HarperCollins Eos, $14.95, paperback, 272 pages, 1 November 2002; ISBN: 0380791234.)
In Maureen McHugh's imagined future, a fundamentalist theocracy has sealed off Morocco from the rest of the world. The Nekropolis is where the poor live, a densely packed environment from which there is virtually no way out, especially for women. One possible avenue of escape is to be jessed: to undergo a medical intervention that turns you into a slave by neurologically binding you to your owner.
Nekropolis is the story of one such woman, Hariba. In the wealthy household where she is indentured, she meets another slave, the seductive Akhmim. He is a harni, a genetically engineered humanoid species. In the Muslim society of McHugh's novel, harni are even lower on the social ladder than women, referred to as "it," regardless of their gender.
McHugh's novel unfolds delicately, reflecting the naive fragility of its protagonist. The novel begins with Hariba. Despair and loneliness drive her to break the taboos that bind her, propel her into a life of crime and exile. Before returning to Hariba in the final chapter, McHugh shifts the narrative to the people close to Hariba, those whose lives are violently disrupted because of her personal rebellion.
Nekropolis offers no pat answers to the questions it raises. Are Hariba's actions justified? Did she balance her responsibilities, to her community and to herself? Are we slaves to our cultural upbringing? Is escape possible? Or even desirable?
Nekropolis is a haunting meditation on desire, escape, identity, and transformation. It's imbued with profound empathy -- portraying the successive narrators with equal integrity and depth -- and is all the more moving because it takes unexpected paths, never resorting to the obvious. McHugh's creation resonates long after the last page is turned.
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© Claude Lalumière 12 January 2002, 12 April 2003