Lili Wilkinson, The Boundless Sublime, Allen and Unwin, August 2016, 337pp., $19.99 (pbk), ISBN 9781760113360
How seductive something called the ‘boundless sublime’ can seem. Ruby is a deeply unhappy girl, her family is falling apart and she believes it to be all her fault. She is finding her guilt and grief difficult to cope with until he meets a young man, Fox, who gives out bottles of water in the street. They become friends and he seems to offer Ruby the chance of peace, so she leaves home to join him and the person he calls Daddy.
However, the place where Fox lives, the so-called Institute of Boundless Sublime, a name which belies the reality of existence there, is not what it seems. It is a constructed ‘paradise’, where the lives of all residents are regulated and controlled by the deeply sinister ‘Daddy’, who is, nonetheless, a charismatic character. This is a cult, and as such, the control of the leader is absolute; he is the rule-maker but also, as Ruby gradually realises, apparently above his own rules. Even more dangerously, as Ruby also comes to understand, he uses underhanded and potentially life-threatening means of control. He is a wonderfully constructed character, and truly terrifying.
The characterisation is generally strong; there are minor characters who drift in and out but whom we see as characters shaped by their past and by their time in the cult. The major characters are believable and well-constructed. Daddy preys on the weakness of all those who have joined him, exploiting their grief, loneliness, guilt or other forms of unhappiness to convince them that he knows best how to make them happy and that giving up individuality and independence will allow them to reach the ‘boundless sublime’. Daddy, as with many other cult leaders, seems able to get anyone to believe anything.
Ruby herself is a strong and believable heroine who, although forced to carry out an act of terrible cruelty, also maintains an individuality and strength that allows her to carry out acts of great bravery, especially in the ultimate freeing of Fox.
The whole Institute thrives on secrecy and fear, a fear that is almost palpable. Daddy’s presence seems to be everywhere and his will has been imposed so strongly on the other residents that it is very difficult to know who can be trusted. It is all so easy for someone like this to call his cruelty kindness, helping those who are ‘back sliding’ to regain their faith and path toward the sublime.
The ending is realistic and doesn’t tie everything up too neatly, recognising that breaking free of the cult will bring new challenges to both Ruby and Fox, challenges which might well be quite long-lasting. The suspense leading up to the denouement is really well-written as we, as readers, join Ruby in her struggles. This is a really gripping book, and one which lives on the memory long after the last chapter is finished.
Reviewed by Margot Hillel