The Collector by Laura Kat Young
Publisher : Titan Books Ltd (12 Sept. 2023)
Language : English
Paperback : 320 pages
The consequences for grieving and depression are terrifying
Laura Kat Young’s 2022 debut The Butcher was one of the most striking novels of the year and psychologically it remained in my thoughts long after completion. In this captivating story the main character, known as ‘The Butcher’, is responsible for amputating limbs (usually fingers to begin with) for individuals being punished for crimes or indiscretions as minor as gossiping. Following on from the death of her mother, at a certain point the main character has a crisis of conscience and the story broadens out with Lady Mae’s inner turmoil, whilst she falls in love but sees no hope of anything beyond the drudgery of her bloody job as the Butcher.
Although The Collector held my attention for the duration its major weakness is the simple fact that even though the plot has some differences from The Butcher in other ways it is incredibly similar, probably too much so. Both books have isolated dystopian settings which give zero background information about where their wider location might be, providing no big picture snapshots of what else is going on in the world, with The Butcher set in Settlement Five and The Collector a non-descript town we see nothing beyond. Both novels are strongly centred around characters who both have personal inner struggles with their strict roles in societies where questioning is just not possible, with the plots being principally developed around these issues.
As with The Butcher, Laura Kat Young’s second novel recalls many other dystopian novels and the second of three sections (without going into detail) was just too reminiscent of sections of George Orwell’s 1984. Instead of Big Brother’s all controlling ‘Thought Police’ we have ‘The Bureau’ an organisation which monitors the emotional behaviour of the society where the book is set. The Collector lacked the raw edge and bloody visceral elements which made its predecessor so powerful and it was also relatively predictable, I knew exactly what was going to happen in part two and the short final third part long before the plot arrived there.
In The Collector the population is closely monitored for showing elements of grief or depression and when this happens are given a letter of warnings and if nothing changes, one of the Collectors makes a house call. The entire plot is built around the mechanism which makes this process happen in a society where everything is monitored 24/7. As in 1984 there are many government departments in The Bureau, with main character Lieutenant Dev Singh working as a Collector. Although many dystopian novels use the same types of tropes, the most similar point of reference I noticed was Suzanne Young’s The Program YA series (2013-18) where there is an epidemic in teen suicide and true feelings are forbidden with those showing signs of affliction being sent to ‘the program’ where they return as a reconditioned blank slate. Their depression is gone, but so are their personalities and The Collector does not stray too far from The Program.
The action starts slowly with the reader following along and experiencing a typical workday for main character Dev as he goes about collecting memories, firstly from an old woman. We realise that he is just one cog in a very big wheel of an organisation which monitors for depression, sorrow, or grief and gently extracts a treasured (or whatever they want to give) memory from the person he has been sent to meet. In the background titbits are dropped here and there about what ails society (possible mass suicides) and the important role Dev has as a Collector in helping the wheels go round. Overall I felt the reader deserved more information than the snatches they were fed and would have liked to find out much more about what other departments, such as ‘The Absorbers’ did.
However, not all is well with Dev and as with Lady Mae in The Butcher the novel homes in on this turmoil. Time is spent laying out how the various departments work, Dev’s past in the orphanage (of sorts), his old friend Shay who also works for the Bureau and how everybody is always telling him how wonderful he is at extracting memories. This world was a pretty scary place as it was clearly very difficult to be yourself and some of the most powerful scene involved Dev and Shay and the veiled warnings she gives him about making sure he stays involved and is a productive member of the Bureau. Although no technology is used beyond old eighties cassette recording devices, something of this ‘stay involved’ philosophy reminded me of Dave Egger’s fantastic The Circle, where to succeed in this high-tech social media dominated organisation, which bordered on a cult, participation in absolutely everything was expected otherwise your career would stagnate and you would be cut off.
The idea of storing a memory for eternity was a clever one and it had me thinking of what I might personally choose, there was also a very powerful scene involving a woman and a gaggle of children who knew what was coming around the corner. Although it was a decent read, I still had mixed feelings about The Collector, it lacked the punch of The Butcher and Dev’s world was just not fleshed out enough to really grab me and not enough questions were answered.
The Collector by Laura Kat Young
A frightening dystopian horror novel where grief is forbidden and purged from the mind – a nightmarish mix of 1984 and Never Let Me Go.
Sorrow is inefficient. It’s also inescapable.
Lieutenant Dev Singh dutifully spends his days recording the memories of people who, struck with incurable depression, will soon have their minds erased in order to be more productive members of society.
At night though, hidden in the dark, Dev remembers and writes in his secret journal the special moments shared with him–the small laugh of a toddler, the stillness of a late afternoon. The first flutter of love. But when the Bureau finds out he’s been recounting the memories–and that the depression is in him, too– he’s sent to a sanitarium to heal.
After all, the Bureau knows what’s best for you. A nightmarish descent from sadness to madness, THE COLLECTOR is a dystopian horror novel where grief is forbidden and purged from the mind.