In Paula Lichtarowicz’s The First Book of Calamity Leek, the eponymous hero is a young woman on the cusp of adulthood and full of bravado—and imprisoned by a cult. She is also naive, brainwashed and training for a “War” against “demonmales” which will never come.
Kidnapped as a child by the mentally deranged Miss Havisham-esque characters Mother and Aunty, she is one of 14 “Sisters” held captive in the Garden, behind the Wall of Safekeeping, and told to fear the Outside. Calamity’s world starts to implode the night one of her Sisters, Truly Polperro, decides to climb the Wall and see just what is happening on the Outside. Truly’s subsequent death sets in motion a chain of events that results in the destruction of the Garden, the only home Calamity has ever known. The most unreliable of unreliable narrators, anguished Calamity is the last of her Sisters to accept that all is not well within the boundaries of the Wall—reluctant to question the world around her, she is frightened by Sisters Truly and Annie’s search for answers.
“Everyone knows an Annie but equally everyone is probably a little bit of a Calamity,” says Lichtarowicz. “In one of the earlier drafts I had a lot more of Annie explaining her trip Outside, but I never really engaged with that, because I think the interesting thing for me is the contradiction within Calamity. She’s trying to cope with what’s happening, but she is also refusing to cope.
“Annie is great; she sees things for what they are and courageously goes off to find things out, but Calamity reflects something a lot more interesting for me. The funny thing is that I really like people who are curious and questioning, and I admire Annie and everything she represents. Calamity is the opposite of how I think someone should be, but sometimes I think as a writer it is more useful to go to the places that are difficult for you, because it makes you question things a bit more."
Knowledge and power
One of the biggest themes in the book is power, and more importantly the relationship between knowledge and power, with Mother and Aunty creating a new cosmology for the girls that explains their presence in the Garden. “I think it all comes back to my bugbear about belief systems. Power comes with knowledge, and if that knowledge is of a world and a creation myth that is totally made up, then you only have the power that’s accorded to you from that. The Garden became this great way of looking at things, a microcosm within which I could explore those big ideas. It all comes back to the idea of curiosity; when Annie starts questioning the world around her, she gets the power to change her situation.”
One way in which Aunty and Mother maintain their power is by giving the Sisters a new doctrinal book to follow, the Appendix—Aunty’s A–Z guide to their creation, history and the life rules they should follow. Growing up in a Catholic household, Lichtarowicz says the religious elements of the novel were fun to play around with: “Oh yes, my parents will hate me for it, but I loved making up a whole new world and a whole new reason for why the sun was there and how the girls were created. It was fun to have the freedom to do that, but in one way, the madness of Aunty’s Appendix is no less barking than the story of a man taking a woman’s rib in a garden,” she says.
Hutchinson is billing Calamity Leek as perfect for fans of Kazuo Ishiguro and Audrey Niffenegger or Grace McCleen’s The Land of Decoration—filled with tension, it also has a strong fairytale element to it. Lichtarowicz has Polish grandparents and says she has always been influenced by Eastern European folklore and nightmarish stories such as the tale of Baba Yaga, the Slavic grandmother who kidnaps and eats young children.
“I’ve always enjoyed a nice grotesque story, and in fiction I’m drawn to authors such as Salman Rushdie and Gabriel García Márquez; writers who can manipulate things in a more sinister way, like Margaret Atwood. For me, fiction has to give me a little something else and not just be of this world. There is a space in literature that allows you to be a little bit more fantastical. Life can be a little bit more technicolour.”
Read our review of The First Book of Calamity Leek by Paula Lichtarowicz, out now, published by Hutchinson.