Within the first few pages of Paula Lichtarowicz’s debut novel, The First Book of Calamity Leek, you are plunged into a confusing and unexplained world full of ‘demonmales’ and ‘sun lids’. It takes some time to adjust to the completely alien language and turns of phrase that the novel’s protagonist and narrator, the eponymous Calamity Leek, uses throughout, but once you are immersed within her world, everything slowly starts to make sense.
Calamity and her fifteen sisters (all with equally unusual names such as Sandra Saffron Walden and Truly Polperro) live safe within a walled garden in the middle of rural Wales, sheltered from the dangers of outside by Aunty, their mentor and protector. Aunty, known outside the garden as music-hall star Ophelia Swindon, created the ‘Appendix’ for Calamity and her sisters as a way of teaching them everything they need to know about the outside world. The Appendix even explains why the sisters were chosen to live within their walled enclave – they have been specially selected by Mother to be trained to destroy the evil demonmales that have oppressed and controlled women for years. However, as the book progresses, the reader comes to realise that everything is not as it seems within the apparently safe world that Calamity and her sisters inhabit.
Told entirely from the perspective of Calamity, the story begins with one of her sisters, Truly Polperro, falling from the top of the protective wall after climbing up to see what was on the other side. As time goes on, more and more of Calamity’s sisters begin to question the truth of the small, isolated world they have been brought up in. However, Calamity herself refuses to consider that Aunty has lied to her and her sisters, choosing instead to believe fully in the Appendix. Because of this, the second half of the novel is quite often frustrating to read. Calamity’s absolute refusal to accept anything other than what has been told her entire life is understandable, but no less irritating to read because of it. However, her unique way of thinking and speaking does lend the novel a touch of unexpected humour, something that works extremely well when contrasted with the darker themes and issues discussed within the book.
Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, has called this book “wonderfully strange”. And indeed The First Book of Calamity Leek is both wonderful and strange. Despite some questionable plot points, the book manages to tread the line between light and dark fantastically well for a debut novel, as well as remaining unique in a heavily saturated market of dystopian young adult novels.