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Headspace: a book I can’t stop talking about

I know, I said I wasn’t going to post book reviews anymore, but what happens when you’ve read a book that blew your mind so hard that you can’t stop rambling about it? That’s right, you try to put your feelings into words. 

Ok, now that I’ve stated my intention and provided a justification for my conscience and for whoever remembers me saying that I would stop reviewing books on my blog, let’s start from the beginning: let me introduce to you my latest narrative obsession, “Headspace” by J.D. Edwin. I took advantage of a launch promotion and pre-ordered it at a super discounted price, but I can assure you it’s worth the full price.

I’ll try not to give away too much about the story, but I have to warn that it’ll leave a lot of room for my fangirl ramblings.

As I read the blurb on Amazon, I thought it was just another “Hunger Games”-like story, a genre I’m not a huge fan of, but a few pages into the book I realized I had misjudged it. Yes, it revolves around a series of trials of increasing difficulty with only one possible winner, but the premise is quite different. Rather than the trials being something ritual and/or institutionalized in a dystopian future when we first meet the protagonist the world is quite normal and everyday-like.

The protagonist (and narrating voice) is Astra, a twenty-something woman living an ordinary life: a job, a few friends, a new apartment into which for some reason she doesn’t seem so keen to settle. She seems fine with her everyday and uneventful life.

Until, of course, something extraordinary happens: a huge orb lands on Earth, and announcements are played of a new contest. Everyone can sign up to get a chance to be selected to participate in the game, and since there is this kind of willingness it seems it’s just going to be yet another televised game, in the spirit of Takeshi’s Castle (or, for fellow Europeans, Jeux sans frontières). 

But then the game begins, and contestants and audience understand how wrong they’ve been: there are consequences for contestants who fail. Deadly consequences. Astra is quite relieved that she didn’t sign up until she finds out that a friend of hers signed her up behind her back.

Personally, this is the only part that made me frown a little in the entire book because it seemed a bit too stretched. But on the other hand, it is true and clear since the beginning that Astra would never do that on her own: they say every protagonist must have some kind of “defect” at the beginning of the story, which translates into inner conflict and ultimately fuels the transformation journey the character goes through across the story. And I think it’s safe to say that at the beginning of the story, Astra is struggling with finding her own way in life (and doesn’t seem concerned about it).

And the fact that thousands of people mindlessly signed up for the game mirrored to perfection the way people nowadays tend to get hyped and to embark on whatever is proposed to them without thinking twice. Everything becomes entertainment, even something that can potentially get you killed. I think the author really nailed this aspect of modern society to perfection in the first part of the book as she described the effects of the orb announcements about the game.

But how is this deadly game played? We don’t know who’s really behind it until the very end, and we only see it introduced through Cheshire, a mysterious humanoid robot with an unsettling smile who plays as the presenter that coordinates the tests and the contestants, introducing every stage with a twist of sadistic enjoyment conveyed through their words and their behavior.

Then there’s Eleven, an alien whose identity is hidden behind a mask. Initially summoned to help a deaf contestant (out of his astonishing knack for languages), Eleven ends up being the second in charge during the tests, even though he doesn’t share Cheshire’s enthusiasm about the game. It feels like if they’re playing good cop/bad cop, and we as readers are definitely curious about Eleven and how did he end up participating in something he doesn’t seem enthusiastic about.

Conversely, Cheshire looks like the perfect cruel and heartless villain*, but soon enough it becomes clear that there’s room for someone/something even worse to claim that position.

Because that’s the fact: in general, the book is a very accurate (and frightening, at times) metaphor of 21st-century life. It takes very little for someone to get under the spotlight and gain worldwide fame, only to be thrown to the public and dissected in single fragments. People feed on gossip and they always seem to worship someone while just waiting for the slightest chance to condemn someone else.

Here we are now, entertain us

Nirvana

Our “collective opinion” about famous people is influenced by how we perceive them, and that’s why everybody needs to build their own character before people do it for them. And it’s so easy to create the monster, an enemy to be thrown under the bus at the slightest mistake as if they were a kind of one-fits-all scapegoat.

All this is masterfully mixed up with a sense of being lost in front of something new and that looks so much bigger than mankind, and with the isolation from the outer world: in fact, the chosen contestants are picked up and delivered to a secret location as soon as they enter the game, and they have the chance to communicate with each other only in meetings that recall Zoom calls between coworkers. This kind of “human contact” is the only kind of interaction allowed until the game is over. 

I don’t know how much the events of the past year and a half played a role when the author crafted this story, or if they did it at all, but at times I felt a connection with the sense of despair and craziness we’ve all felt since March 2020. A global threat that instead of strengthening our sense of community ends up unveiling our worse and more selfish being.

All this intertwines with Astra and her struggle to save herself (and the world), all while trying not to stand out too much. Needless to say, she’ll end up standing out indeed: but we never see her acting as the group leader in any of the meetings they hold between contestants. I think it’s quite a spoiler so I’ll just write it in white so you can ignore it if you plan to read the book and don’t want me to ruin the experience for you. If you’ve already read the book (or if you are one of those Buddhist-monk-like people who can’t be bothered by spoilers – lucky you), just highlight the following lines.

I loved how she seemed to win the game even though she failed at addressing her own internal issues. How her life just after the final contest just repeats itself until she figures that there’s something more that she needs to do if she wants to save herself and the world. Not to mention the final realization when she accepts the fact that she’s not on her own and can’t take it all on her shoulders: she needs to open up, to really listen to strangers and people around her.

“If you’re afraid to talk to strangers they’ll always be around you” is what I’ve been told right before leaving for a semester abroad on my own, almost ten years ago, and I felt quite a connection with Astra’s need to get out of her comfort zone and open up to other people and their stories.

So yes, it’s the kind of book you begin thinking it will just be entertainment, only to find out a few chapters later than it is actually entertainment but with so much more below the surface. Hats off to J.D. Edwin for entertaining my August vacation with such a compelling and complex story. You gained a reader (quite an avid one).

What about you? Did you read the book? If you did, I’d love to know what you thought about it. If you didn’t, well, what are you waiting for? Just go and read it already.

* I really really can’t wait to know what turned Seven into that monster. The sneak preview we got at the end of the book almost made me forget that we never got an answer about whether Astra will accept the offer or not.
The lines above contain a spoiler, of course. You already know the drill.

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