Book Review: 5 to 1, Holly Bodger (2015)

May 15th, 2015 11:54 am by Kelly Garbato

“…bone, once broken, never heals the same.”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review though NetGalley. Also, trigger warning for rape.)

Although his words put me on a pedestal,
his eyes make me
the stool he’d use
to ascend there himself.

They’d already lived in Hell. How could this new country possibly be worse?

The year is 2054, and the walled city of Koyanagar is all of twelve years old. Its birth is steeped in the blood of children – the millions of girls killed prior to its inception, and the thousands of boys sacrificed to its ideals since.

In order to halt its population growth, India instituted a one-child policy at the turn of the century, ushering in an era of sex-selective abortion and gender-based infanticide. In less than fifty years, the devaluation of girls led to a sex ratio of 5 to 1 – five boys for every one girl. Girls became a precious commodity to be bought, sold – and stolen. Tired of the war on women, and in a bid to make marriage more equitable, the women of Koyanager appealed to the Prime Minister, demanding that he reverse India’s destructive policies. When he laughed in their faces, they returned to Koyanagar, separated it from the outside world with a wall (and plenty of boys and men to guard it), and instituted their own form of government: a matriarchy every bit as oppressive and tyrannical as the patriarchy which inspired it.

Instead of arranged marriages, the boys of Koyanagar compete in a series of Tests to win a bride; once married, their sole role is to provide her with daughters. If they’re lucky, the losers might be able to bribe their way to a good job as a servant; those boys whose families are wealthy with girls may even be able to live a life of bored luxury. Everyone else is sent to guard the wall – a dangerous prospect that, being thrown in among thousands of other disaffected, marginalized, and emasculated young men.

Sudasa Bala is one of eight 17-year-old girls prizes up for grabs in this round of the Tests. Though she should be excited, marriage is the last thing on her mind; she’s never so much as been allowed to talk to a boy, and now she’s expected to wed and bed one in just a month’s time? And a stranger, at that?

Her reticence turns to full-blown rebellion when Sudasa realizes that one of the five contestants isn’t a stranger at all, but is in fact her second cousin – a statistical improbability. Worse still, the Tests appear to be rigged in his favor. Clearly, she is payment for a debt her Nani owes Mota Masi, the boy’s grandmother and Nani’s longtime political ally. How can Sudasa be expected to subvert her own will for a system that purports to be fair – but is anything but?

Meanwhile, contestant Five – known to his Appa as Kiran Pillai – is the only one who stands a chance of beating Sudasa’s cousin. Problem is, he has other ideas. Kiran aims to lose so that he can slip away in the confused aftermath of the Tests. He wants to escape Koyanagar and find his Amma, who abandoned the family just before the wall was closed for good.

Will One’s crude manners and predatory attitude towards the dark-haired girl throw his well-laid plans into disarray? Or do he and Sudasa have the same dream after all?

Dystopian stories that flip gender-based oppression on its head leave me both excited…and a little nervous. On the one hand, they carry great potential for exposing the evils of misogyny, by allowing it to play out on the bodies of the privileged for a jarring (hopefully) change of pace (think: The Hawkeye Initiative). But they also run the risk of devolving into an MRA conspiracy theory and undermining feminist ideals, either intentionally or not.

Overall, I think that 5 to 1 falls into the former category. Koyanagar may be a matriarchy, but it’s still a society marked by poverty, inequity, and a lack of human rights. While the status of women has been elevated – and they can no longer be bought and sold, but rather must be won – the fact is that they remain commodities, as they were under the previous system. Rather than granting women basic human rights, the elder stateswomen of Koyanagar have stripped men of theirs, making things “equal”: equally oppressive for all. There are no winners in a system that outlaws freedom and choice.

In fact, the establishment of the Tests is quite reminiscent of when President Coin tried to reinstate the Hunger Games after her defeat of the Capitol: not because they’re fair, or just, or necessary to maintaining peace and order – but out of a very understandable thirst for vengeance and retribution. Understandable, but misplaced: President Snow’s grandchildren may be rich and spoiled, but they bear no responsibility for the misdeeds of their ancestors. Creating more victims does not bring about justice.

The story’s told from dual points of view: Sudasa, who relays her story in verse, and Kiran, who relies on the more conventional prose. While Sudasa, as a member of the “privileged” class, shows great compassion for the boys forced to compete for the chance to be her “slave,” Kiran is angry: he’s the futuristic version of a stereotypical man-hating feminist. Of course, this makes sense, given the circumstances; and yet it grates in the nerves rather quickly, sounding as he does like a modern-day MRA. As Kiran becomes better acquainted with Sudasa as a person, his views change somewhat; yet I still found it difficult to invest in him emotionally.

Likewise, it’s hard to muster much sympathy for the older men in the story. Though he’s treated like garbage now (oh, how the star athletes have fallen!), back in the day, Sudasa’s father bought her mother as if she was a big-screen television or other luxury item. What goes around, okay.

Sudasa, in contrast, makes for an interesting and complex protagonist – which was why it was so hard to watch her pull the special snowflake card (“I’m not like them, those vapid, selfish girls.”). How is she to know what’s going on in the other girls’ heads? Interestingly, this encapsulates Kiran’s first impressions of Sudasa herself – assumptions borne of ignorance and stereotypes, proven untrue once Kiran actually gets to know her. Perhaps this is Bodger’s point – that the crowd is filled with more Sudasas than we might suspect?

A quick and engaging read, 5 to 1 is an interesting feminist take on the dystopian genre – although it might be more apt to call it humanist, since Bodger advocates for the rights of all human beings. The story’s made all the more unique through the alternating use of verse and prose. There are a few details that I’m still muddling over – e.g., if Sudasa’s older sister Surina chose the boy she loved over Nani’s objections, then how did he end up in her Tests if not for Nani? – but if given a do-over, it’s a story I’d read again.

A strong 3.5 stars, rounded up to 4 where necessary.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)


Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Racially, yes. The story is set in future India; all of the characters are presumably Indian. Dark, tanned skin is seen as undesirable because of its correlation with manual labor and, thus, poverty. Since forced marriage and birth are a large part of the story, it would have been interesting to see how the state deals with gays and lesbians, but all of the characters appear to be heterosexual.


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