What’s 5 to 1 About?
In a dystopian future, a subset of Indian women–in an effort to counter the fiercely sexist views of a society that mandates that families may only have one child (which leads to selective abortions or elimination of girl children)–created a separate country-within-a-country called Koyanagar that aims to favor girls. Once a girl turns seventeen, five boys are selected “randomly” to compete for her hand in marriage. Only, the game is far from random; it rewards the wealthy. The system is corrupt and Sudasa finds herself unwilling to simply go along with it.
This story was written in two points of view–prose poetry for Sudasa and narrative prose for Kiran. The voices were distinct and, for the most part, clear and to the point.
Conceptually, as a twisted take on arranged marriage, and as a thought exercise on what might go wrong if a particular utopia did exist (the definition of dystopia), this book is certainly intriguing. And as a fan of dystopian fiction, I was eager to read it. However, I’m afraid that my enjoyment of the piece was hindered by several shortcomings that I ultimately could not ignore.
Problem 1 With 5 to 1: India Is Not China
China and India are not interchangeable. While it’s true that. culturally, girl babies were less desired, India decided to ban ultrasounds to prevent people from selective abortions. One basic premise of this book is that a community was formed in response to the one-child only law. But then, Bodger revealed in an interview that since she was always interested in India, she decided to set her story there. Except that India never issued that ban. Narratively and culturally speaking, that’s a problem.
Problem 2 With 5 to 1: Tired Trope
Dystopian fiction–from The Hunger Games to Divergent–uses the walled community as a premise. This novel follows this trope and, I suppose, by adding the Indian flavoring to it it’s unique, but–and maybe it’s just me–I really think it’s time for Walled Dystopian Society stories to go the way of Vampires and Zombies. It’s a genre that has now been overdone.
That said, unlike those two series, 5 to 1 has some unfortunate narrative issues it must contend with. The first section of the novel spends so much time telling the reader about the world that the characters reside in, and so much time in backstory, that the forward momentum of the story is stilted. The actual forward-moving narrative is limited, and the interactions between the main characters is extremely limited. Which is fine given the structure of the story, but by the end of the first day/section, I still don’t have a good feel for either of the two characters or what they want; their motivations are still mostly hidden from the reader. While this is a perfectly reasonable approach to writing, in this case, more attention seems to be focused on the world than the characters, and that is a problem. Because I don’t yet know them well enough to know them enough to care. Even as the story continues, so much time is spent dwelling in the past that the forward progress is weighed down. As if the story ought to be centered on the events in the past, and this should be book two.
Problem 3 With 5 to 1: Racial Undertones
The fact that the author is white shouldn’t matter. In a woke world, it wouldn’t. In fact, I looked to this story to provide some refreshing objective insight into matters that perhaps we as Indians are too close to view objectively. However, the overall tone was so critical and judgmental throughout–even though it was filtered through the characters’ points of view–that it was hard to take her opinion seriously. And this, of course, is the danger with writing about another culture. Because representation means more than merely casting characters of color. It becomes difficult to read a line like “He told us to return to our insignificant city–known for nothing but its mangoes and monkeys” (21) and not bring to mind the race of the writer. It’s hard to read passages like:
I should be thankful. Thankful my sex
Guarantees me the life of a bird.
More like a cage. (15)
and not see the judgment oozing out.
The fact that when Bodger imagines an India that respects women’s rights, she pictures overbearing, ambitious, and corrupt women in charge resorting to violence and manipulation, is a problem. Perhaps, were we in a post-racial world it would be different. But we’re not. And when the only book about India in the “We Need Diverse Books” endcap at one of the largest bookstores in the country was authored not by someone of Indian descent, we can be damn sure we haven’t gotten there yet.
This is not a post-racial world. While the author took on an ambitious project aiming to address a serious problem in many cultures, by singling out India (about an issue it didn’t actually have), she opened herself and her work up to close scrutiny. I like to think I’m open-minded. I will accept criticism where it’s due, although not always immediately. So when reading this story, I wanted to be sure I wasn’t simply reacting viscerally. As time passed, however, what stands out is the sense that this is meant to represent a larger cultural problem in Indian society. But by conflating China and India, the effect is that I don’t trust the author.
So no, I can’t recommend Holly Bodger’s debut novel 5 to 1. The premise, without the racial issues, may have made it into a tolerable read (the alternating chapters of prose versus poetry in two points of view was decently done). But overall, we deserve better. As dystopian fiction doesn’t allow for instilling a respectful sense of positivity, it may not be the best approach. Instead, it feels like a case of cultural appropriation.