It was something of a reckless indulgence for me to open this book at all after reading the back cover, one I don’t regret a bit. As a writer, I do my best to regulate my intake of anything belonging to an oversaturated or declining trend, to keep any dreaded Unmarketable Concept At This Time from making up a disproportionate segment of my pool of influence and inspiration. Even when reading according to nothing but my own whims, I’ve never been much for trends anyway. If I love a book, I don’t really expect to find another one that does what it does better than it does it, so I’d prefer to read one that attempts something different instead.
But I’ve been a sucker for Dystopian ever since I discovered Fahrenheit 451 at the age of twelve, and I’ve been thrilled to see it flourish in YA, even if only temporarily. Oliver’s Delirium is yet another YA gem in the Dystopian tradition.
In an alternate reality, love has been classified as a disease, renamed amor deliria nervosa. The USA has closed its borders, all citizens are “cured” (essentially lobotomized) at the age of eighteen, and all who resist, display symptoms, or attempt to contact the uncured “Invalids” on the outside are treated as terrorists, threatening to spread a devastating pandemic. Our hero, seventeen year old Lena, has been raised by her dispassionate, cured aunt and uncle since her mother’s death, supposedly the result of an incurable case of love. Lena carries the stigma of hereditary predisposition and can’t wait to be cured, to prove that she can be normal, until she meets an Invalid boy, who begins to teach her what love really is.
The world Oliver creates does what all good Dystopian worlds should. It forces the reader to reexamine the world as it is, recognize the worst of it, defend the best of it against new arguments, to consciously justify ideals that are usually taken for granted. It asks WHY love is good and important in spite of all the ways it goes wrong, and it presents human potential for indifference and paranoia with haunting realism. Oliver doesn’t sanitize the police state culture necessary to the story’s universe. Its injustices are not simply indicated with characters’ shudders of remembrance. The brutal, government sanctioned home raids and the secretive prison referred to as “The Crypts” are described in graphic and terrifying detail.
Unlike many Dystopian works, however, Delirium is intensely uplifting and far from pessimistic in its overall outlook. The sheer number of things that are missing from Lena’s world serve to point out how jam-packed full of love the real world is. It’s impossible to turn on a TV or radio without coming across something that would make her government’s secret list of Dangerous Ideas and feeling, at least in my case, a little thrill of gratitude for the simple ability to feel.
Delirium is also a joy as a simple love story in its own right. Lena’s internal conflict as she reexamines everything she’s ever known is natural and complex. Alex is an irresistible hybrid of the seductive man of mystery and the knight in shining armor, with the charisma of the first, the comforting trustworthiness of the second, and (almost) none of the condescension common in both. The relationship that develops between the two is a perfect, inescapably relatable picture of the process of falling in love, and the near-loveless backdrop highlights the feeling of irreplaceable rareness that accompanies every good love or love story, no matter how common.
Lena’s best friend, Hana, is also endearing and refreshingly compassionate, given her role as someone to be grown apart from. Instead of the jealous impediment she could easily have been, she’s a heartwarming representative of another form of love worth acknowledging.
A few major flaws prevent me from giving Delirium a perfect A+. As smart and decisive as Lena is for much of the book, her part in its otherwise beautiful ending is unsatisfyingly minimal. Oliver also gets a little careless with the word “love,” given how loaded it’s meant to be in Lena’s world. It’s treated as a major milestone when Lena first says the word out loud, even to describe a simple view of the stars, but Lena HAS said the word before, not only in passing as our narrator, but within earshot of public officials and with the encouragement of her strict, conformist family. When we first meet Lena, preparing for the official evaluation intended to determine her place in society after her cure, she’s rehearsing the lie that she “loves children.”
Still, even with its quantifiable issues, Delirium successfully makes me cry, think, and see the world with fresh eyes, and for that I cannot give it adequate credit.