Welcome to the jungle, and a rather dull dystopia
By Leaf Arbuthnot JUNGLE HOUSE by Julianne Pachico ÌÌÌÌÌ
& Arts Books
208pp, Serpent’s Tail, £12.99 (0844 871 1514), RRP£14.99, ebook £10.99 T Stripped to the essentials of its plot, Jungle House is very strange indeed. A 20-year-old orphan, Lena, lives in a grand house in a jungle, where she spends her days fishing, hunting and kvetching with her adoptive mother. The land beyond the house is stalked by dangerous rebels, but Lena can’t bring herself to leave for a place of greater safety, as that would mean abandoning Mother, who’s rooted to the spot – literally, since she is the house itself. Mother talks, holds grudges and reasons like a human, but she’s powered by an AI system stored in an aluminium box. Her “body” is the house’s many rooms; when she’s anxious, she opens and shuts her doors abruptly. Jungle House, which is Julianne Pachico’s third novel, doesn’t read like a science-fiction book, nor quite like a dystopia; it feels pitched as a work of literary fiction that just happens to feature robots and talking houses. But its claims to literariness are worn thin by its prose and its characters. Clean and uncluttered though Pachico’s writing may be, it’s also irritatingly emphatic. “Mother was Lena’s world. And Lena, in turn, was hers,” we are told at one point. “Nothing in the world could ever change that.” The sentence feels ominous, giving you the impression that Lena and Mother’s relationship will, in fact, change – and change it soon does. The characters, meanwhile, aren’t great company. Lena never leaps from the page: she starts off blandly naive and good-natured, and remains so for much of the book. Mother, for her part, leaps too much from the page. Needy and manipulative, she’s constantly complaining and ruminating; a chapter set in her head – sorry, her aluminium box – is the dreariest one of them all. The strangest thing about Jungle House is how un-strange it is. Lena could have been a kind of Romulus and Remus, raised not by wolves but by machines, and imbued with their chilly mystery. Instead, she’s flavourless. The book features an actual talking house, yet, soon enough, you wish it would shut up. Some aspects of the novel work: it’s skilfully plotted, occasionally surprising, and it doesn’t rush when it should linger nor linger when it should rush. But overall it’s a misfire – even if one that manages to play out over barely 200 pages.