‘It’s the most precious thing in the world – a happy childhood. And when you come to look back on it, Calamity dearest, I think you’ll know just how happy yours has been.’
Calamity Leek lives in an orphanage with her 12 sisters. They are kept behind the Wall of Safekeeping and watched over by Aunty in the High Hut, all to keep them safe from demonmales. As the novel begins, one sister – Truly Polperro – climbs a ladder and looks over the wall. Before she’s taken away by Aunty, she reveals that the injuns they’ve been told live outside the wall, don’t exist and so some of the sisters begin to question everything they’ve been told.
The girls are named by Aunty from characters in musicals and places in the U.K. – Annie St. Albans, Millie Gatwick, Nancy Nunhead, Mary Bootle. We’re given a clue as to the origin of their surnames when Mother, the woman behind the whole operation, arrives at the orphanage one day:
‘One wasn’t able to resist it,’ she said to Aunty when she drove into the yard, the baby all tucked up in a blue basket on Mother’s lap. ‘It was parked up in frozen foods, like it had one’s name written all over it. There was something, just something in the shape of the ears that one thought might develop.’
They call the baby Katie Sainsbury’s.
Aunty is raising the girls up to be ‘weapons’. They understand that some of them will soon be off to war to fight against demonmales. Aunty prepares them for this by showing them showreels of musicals, teaching them to slaughter the pigs – Danny Zuko, Henry Higgins, Caractacus Potts, Bill Sykes – and giving them a list of indicators by which they will spot these demonmales:
‘The first is Female Murder, that’s the clearest indicator of maleness. Others are General Impatience and Frequent Warmongering. Course, all demonmales have an Obsession with Fire. They like starting Fires – particularly in Sunny weather. They like to roast flesh on the Fires and pretend they’re roasting things down in Bowels.
‘Also, Fornication. I forgot that. Their Obsession with Fornication is constant. And Fornicating magazines. Which are things they look at while sharpening their Thrusting Tools. Which is what Fornication means, Eliza, if you don’t know it yet. It means they are Obsessed with Thrusting. That’s all their brains were made for – telling their Tools to Thrust females to death. They would Thrust their Fire inside females all day and all night if they could.
Everything the girls need to know is written in the Appendix. A book created by Aunty and trusted to Calamity, who knows it by heart and imparts sections of it to her sisters when they ask questions. Calamity has bought into Aunty’s teachings more than any of the other girls, so even though we are shown early in the novel that she is in hospital and therefore away from the orphanage and Aunty’s scheme, we are privy to her thoughts and aware of the damage to her psyche, which seems irreparable.
The First Book of Calamity Leek is an outstanding debut. At points it reminded me of Neil Gaiman for its inventiveness and creation of a world parallel to, while remaining within, our own; Emma Donoghue’s Room due to the girls’ imprisonment and the bleakness within the book, and Lord of the Flies for the obvious pig slaughtering and the sense of war. However, the book transcends its influences and becomes something new, something inventive, something fresh and something very very dark.