Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 1 August 2020)
Length: 328 pages
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
One of the brightest and best Australian authors, Lili Wilkinson, returns with another intense and captivating young adult fiction novel that takes the reader on a clever thrill ride, The Erasure Initiative.
Lili Wilkinson is an extremely talented writer who has written several bestselling young adult fiction novels since her 2006 debut, Joan of Arc: The Story of Jehanne Darc. I first really got into Wilkinson’s work back in 2018 when I was lucky enough to receive a copy of After the Lights Go Out. After the Lights Go Out was an incredible and amazing young adult fiction novel that followed the daughter of a survivalist in outback Australia as she attempted to navigate a real-life apocalyptic event. This was a truly impressive novel, and not only did I give it a full five-star rating but I also consider it to be one of the best pieces of Australian fiction I have ever read. As a result, I was extremely excited when I saw that Wilkinson had a new book coming out, especially as The Erasure Initiative had such an awesome-sounding plot behind it.
A teenage girl wakes up on an advanced self-driving bus. She has no memory of who she is, where she is or what she has done in her past. The only clue to her identity is a nametag that reads CECILY. But she is not alone. On the bus with her are six other people, some who seem familiar and some who do not. These include an attractive guy, a beautiful girl with severe anger issues, a brilliant high schooler, a tattooed man with violence boiling just beneath the surface, an extremely confident and controlling women and a disorientated old lady. Like Cecily, none of the other people on the bus appear to have their memories, but each of them has a secret worth dying for.
As Cecily and her new acquaintances attempt to make sense of who they are and what is happening to them, a series of ethical questions are posed to them. Each person on the bus must participate and choose an outcome to a hypothetical scenario, with the decision the majority chooses taking place before their eyes. Soon, the participants are tested in even more shocking ways, as the various ethical questions become personal and deadly. Determined to find a way out of this situation, the passengers attempt to uncover the truth behind their incarceration on the bus. But the deeper they dig the more secrets about their past are revealed and the more discord grows amongst them. How are each of these people connected and what actions in their past resulted in them being placed on the bus? More importantly, what is the Erasure Initiative and what impact will it have on all of them?
This was a heck of a novel from an author who I am a major fan of at the moment. Wilkinson did an outstanding job crafting together this compelling and thought-provoking standalone novel which combines an extremely gripping and clever storyline, with some rather fantastic and inventive ethical dilemmas. The end result is an impressive young adult fiction novel that I absolutely loved and which I was able to read in extremely short succession, especially once I became addicted to The Erasure Initiative’s captivating narrative and needed to find out how the book would end.
I really have to highlight the incredible narrative that Wilkinson came up with for this fantastic novel. The story is told from the point of view of the main character, Cecily (if that is her real name!) and shows her slowly unwind the events occurring around her. Wilkinson starts the story off strong, presenting the reader with a series of enticing mysteries, including who the main characters are, what they are doing on the bus, who is behind their predicament, and what secrets each character’s apparent amnesia hides. As the story progresses and the characters start to get a sense of who they are and how they feel about each other, they are beset not only with the strange ethical questions but with a series of hints at their past and what they are there for. This is assisted by a series of in-narrative documents and articles that appear at the start of multiple chapters, providing the reader with more clues towards the character’s past lives. These hints and reveals are done perfectly by Wilkinson, with a lot of the key information initially redacted to give readers a basic shape of the character’s past and personalities, without revealing the whole picture. This all leads into the story’s big reveals that start about halfway through the book. While I was able to predict a couple, including who the novel’s antagonist was, there were quite a few reveals I did not see coming, and one in particular had me reeling at its cleverness and the author’s excellent use of misdirection. By the end of the book, all of the various twists and secrets come together perfectly, and the overall conclusion of the novel is extremely satisfying, especially as I quite enjoyed where the characters ended up. Overall, this was a pretty epic story, and I really enjoyed seeing how it turned out.
One of the most intriguing parts of The Erasure Initiative’s story was the way that the author examines ethics and how humans view right and wrong. The novel follows several amnesiac characters as they are forced to participate in a series of ethical dilemmas, most of which are some variation of the ‘trolley problem’. Watching the characters react to the numerous variations of the problem and try to come up with the answer they think is right is really quite fascinating, especially when it is influenced by several additional factors, like who is involved, certain alterations in a person’s appearance and more. All of this results in a number of thought-provoking scenarios for the characters, which is further complicated by the people not knowing who they are thanks to their amnesia. This leads to all manner of additional fascinating examinations of self and personality as the people try to determine who they are based on the few clues or details they have been given, like attempting to work out whether the people who woke up with a certain colour shirt are law-abiding citizens or criminals. I really liked the various reflective looks at people’s personalities, as the characters looked in on themselves or passed judgements on their fellow passengers. The eventual reveal of the cause of the amnesia and the forced ethical examinations results in even more discussions about morals and personalities, as the characters come to terms with who they are and what choices they made in their previous lives. All of this added an extremely compelling and interesting edge to the entire story, which certainly makes The Erasure Initiative stick out and become even more memorable.
Like most of Wilkinson’s work, The Erasure Initiative is marketed towards a young adult audience, and I can guarantee that this is the sort of book I would have really appreciated when I was a teenager. As I have mentioned above, this book contains quite an impressive story, and one of the great things about it is that it does not talk down to its intended audience. Indeed, Wilkinson has included some very complex and clever themes about identity, personality, decision making and ethical behaviour that I feel younger readers will really appreciate and take the time to consider. Many of the characters and their decisions will easily resonate with a teenage audience, and this is a very worthwhile book for them to check out. The book does contain some mature themes and content which potentially makes it a bit inappropriate for younger readers and early teens, although most of the inclusions are tastefully done and in keeping with current social norms. This is also one of those young adult novels that is extremely accessible to older readers, and I feel that there is a lot in The Erasure Initiative for post-teen readers.
With The Erasure Initiative, amazing Australian author Lili Wilkinson has once again produced an incredible and powerful young adult fiction novel that comes highly recommended. I loved the amazingly clever story, especially thanks to the memorable ethical elements and this is a fantastic novel for a huge range of different readers. Wilkinson is fast becoming one of my favourite Australian authors, and I cannot wait to see what outstanding story she comes up with next.