The Secrets at Primevil by Laura Stolmeier creates a dystopian universe of lost souls that young adults, and older readers, will adore. The idea behind the book is simple yet incredibly original and successful. On their sixteenth birthdays, practically every single teenager succumbs to a damaged gene and goes insane. They are then unceremoniously carted off by the corrupt collectors to, usually, the nearest asylum. Here the youngsters have to work or contribute in some way to earn favours and better treatment until they can hopefully be released. We follow the story of parentless Charlotte who is taken to the one of the infamous Redwine Hill asylums, the worst of the worst, where she befriends Serenity and Jared, the guard. Serenity vanishes and Charlotte is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, no matter how dangerous that might prove to be.
Like the premise behind the book, Stolmeier’s style is deceptively simple. The language and ideas are ideally suited to a YA audience, but conceal complexity and deeper layers. The teenage characters, unlike the adults we meet who are mostly unattractive and untrustworthy, are appealing and show great resourcefulness and resilience in their struggles in the bottomless pit of anguish they inhabit. But it’s not all bad. Alongside the repression, distrust and corruption are loyalty, friendship and love. In a nice but non-sentimental touch, two little kittens, usually destined to be served up in the cafeteria, act as a reminder that where there’s life, there’s hope. This is compelling, exciting reading.