Luminous, by Dawn Metcalf (Dutton, 2011, YA 367 pages)
Consuela is a normal teenager--until the day she isn't. With a vengeance. Because Consuela is about to leave her body behind and enter a strange alternate world, one where she is no ordinary girl. It is one of the oddest fantastical transformation I've seen in my recent reading:
"Almost without thinking, Consuela slipped her skin over her head like a sweater. She pulled her arms out of their long gloves and stepped gently out of the warm, wet suit left puddled at the bottom of the bathtub. Keeping her eyes on her feet, Consuela stared at the collection of thin, tiny bones suspended in a sort of liquid shadow holding them together, surreal against the peach bath mat. She looked up into the full-length mirror and saw herself.
Consuela was a skeleton." (page 14)
I was taken aback (and somewhat disturbed), but intrigued. And my interest continued as Consuela leaves normal life behind, and enters into the world of the "flow," where reality plays by different rules, and a small group of teenagers (each as freakishly strange as Consuela now is) is charged with saving people who teeter at the brink of death.
But the Flow is under threat from within--someone, or something, wants it destroyed. And so the deaths of the teenagers within the flow begins...and Consuela's struggles to come to terms with her new existence pale in comparison to the new challenge of staying "alive" in a realm where "life" is already a strange thing indeed.
Consuela's new powers are fascinating, the Flow is fascinating, and so are the people she meets there--including one boy with whom romance blossoms (just in case you wondered: Consuela doesn't stay a skeleton for the whole book, which is good, because the romance would have been weird if she had). Unfortunately for the reader, many of these characters die before Consuela gets to know them well (if at all), which was disappointing. However, on the plus side, I found Consuela's reactions and emotional challenges convincing and gripping (I especially liked that she missed her family!), and I read eagerly to the end, waiting for everything to fall into place.
But in the end, things don't, quite, hold together to make a convincing alternate reality. I had to keep squashing my questions firmly, and suspend my critical facilities (which proved quite easy, in as much as I was thoroughly enjoying Consuela and her new found powers). Just for starters, why are there so few teenagers in the Flow? Why does there seem to be so little demand for their services? Why, since so big deal is made of the fact that Consuela enters the Flow in an unprecedented way, does it have no particular consequences as far as I could tell? Who the heck is the mysterious Native American shape-changer, Joseph Crow? Even the veterans of the Flow have no certain answers.
Consuela herself is aware of all these unanswered questions; toward the end of the book, she asks herself a whole long paragraph of them, wanting rather desperately (with good reason!) "to know more about life, about death, and most of all, about the Flow." But her conclusion seems to be identical to the one reached by the author:
"[She] knew none of the answers would make one bit of difference. She had to go. Right now. She had to live, or die now. Her choice." (page 290)
And so the answers are never forthcoming, and Luminous never moved beyond "interesting diversion and very pleasant read" into book I fell hard for. I loved the pictures made in my mind, but the story itself never quite coalesced into a real, solid thing. That being said, I never once wanted to put it down...
I'd be curious to know what any of you who have read this one think! Here's what The Book Smugglers thought....
Note for those wanting to read diverse sff: Consuela is a Mexican American, and is shown as such (beautifully!) on the cover.
Note on religion: Given that the Flow is essentially a surreal fantastical limbo, I was curious about how religion would play out in the characters' conceptions of it all. From a few brief invocations of the Divine, Consuela might well have a genuine belief in Christianity (at one point, she says a mental "Sorry, Jesus" (page 49)--that sort of small, infrequent reference), but the whole relationship of the Flow to any religion is left unclear. Given my feeling that Consuela would consider herself Christian, it was a little bothersome, not because of my own feelings about religion, but because I found it to be a disconcerting gap between character-building and world-building. While on the subject of religion---Consuela's key decision at the end of the book might not sit well with readers for whom the concept of "the right to die" is anathema.