Scheduled for release 21 September 2021
I don’t know about you, but I have a full shelf of books that I return to often. Sure, I love the plots, and they are entertaining in a way that makes me want to keep reading to the very end, even though I know every plot twist and turn as if I had written them myself. I come back to them time and time again because I need to remember a certain message about life: believe in yourself, don’t get too caught up in the world’s drama, the power of love. You get the picture.
Jessica Bell’s newest novel, How Icasia Bloom Touched Happiness, now has a permanent place on that shelf.
The storyline is simple enough. Four characters find themselves in various stages of paradoxical oppression, as they face the challenges of a dystopian-ish leader who requires the acquisition of perpetual happiness to be guaranteed eternal harmony in what Bell terms a “Second Life Phase.” When “The Globe” is getting a little crowded, leadership thinks it’d be a bright idea to chop a few decades off the life span of those still pining for that happiness.
Bell delivers in two key areas: complex character development and story structure.
First, Bell builds characters that are immediately accessible to us as readers. Icasia and Selma are young moms who have fought against the system and don’t believe they are destined for Globe salvation. Jerome, Selma’s husband, is just months away from his Death Inducement, and he struggles to find happiness in every aspect of his life – in his job, with his wife Selma, and especially with Selma’s daughter, Leila.
Each of these four characters is on a unique but relatable deadline – none more terrifying than Jerome’s – to discover truths about themselves and about life itself, despite the governmental gaslighting that seems to have the world convinced that their way is the only way to eternal happiness.
Through an intricately woven tale told from multiple perspectives, Bell grabs us by the wrist in the first chapter and doesn’t let go until after we’ve turned over the last page, desperate for more.
The structure of the story is as intriguing as the plot line, including a volley between chapters titled, “Listen” and “Watch.” Even more compelling are Icasia’s first-person entries in the “Listen” chapters, addressed to a character named Eve who is not even part of the story as it is being revealed. Yet, Icasia writes to her as if she is talking directly to her – in the same space – as she is sharing the story with us.
Like the situation the characters find themselves in, Bell’s approach is equally paradoxical, a crossing of boundaries between characters and readers that is hard to pull off. Bell does the job, though, delivering a meta-experience for the reader that keeps you thinking through the entire read.
Just one example: We do not know how much time separates the telling of the story to the actual events unfolding. Every time we read a new “Listen” chapter, we are reminded that there is a deeper sense to this plot. Bell delivers on this promise in the end in one of the many twists. It’s this simple: the structure mirrors the storyline at every turn.
I have to say it: Icasia Bloom is a meta-novel crafted to make you think beyond the story. It will work your mind without you even realizing it.
Without giving away any spoilers, this is what I was thinking as I was reading the novel (and this is why it is a top-shelf book in my library): Don’t believe everything you are told, or even that you see. The path of truth leading to authentic happiness lies deeper within, for each of us. No rules, no mandates, not even any life secrets heralded in the best of self-help or spiritual books can determine that truth for any one of us.
By the time we get to the ending, we realize that we are strapped in to a roller coaster of twists and turns, all highly unexpected.
There is urgency at the end, no doubt driven by the countdown to Jerome’s scheduled Death Inducement, and at times I wanted the converging plot lines to slow down. Bell does such a great job developing suspense through the evolution of her characters that I could have easily enjoyed another 50-75 pages of the climax and resolutions at the end.
Regardless, the reader is left with a good reason why Bell’s story is – and must be – told often. And why we must never tire of tales of hope, redemption, self-love, and of course, the essential pursuit of perpetual happiness.