Sixteen-year-old Wen is the daughter of the doctor for a slaughter house. After her mother’s death, she moves into the factory housing with him, acting as his assistant. The abusive factory manager brings in outsiders, the Noor, as cheap, disposable labor for the busy season. One of the new workers humiliates Wen in the company cafeteria. Angry and feeling shamed, she leaves a wish for Ghost, the spirit of a factory worker who died on the slaughterhouse floor. Her anger turns to guilt when her wish is fulfilled in a violent way. It seems the Ghost is watching over her, but his protection begins to take on sinister and obsessive overtones. Meanwhile tensions between the native workers and the foreign Noor escalate and intertwine with the workers’ grievances against the factory management’s exploitations.
There are lots of things to like about this book. Wen is a very capable young woman who, if there were money for tuition, would almost certainly be studying to become a doctor herself. She also is able to think critically and independently. She questions things she has always been taught based on her own experiences. But she’s a real person, too. She makes mistakes, mistakes that land her in some dangerous situations. This is a brutal, intense, and violent story. The Ghost begins to act in ways that help him possess Wen rather than following her wishes, with drastic consequences. I also liked the way Fine contrasted the restrictive attitudes of Wen’s culture towards women with those of the Noor who grant women greater respect and freedom. The Ghost’s obsessive behavior is presented in such a way as to be both terrifying and understandable.
Much as I enjoyed this book when I read it, looking back after a few weeks has only increased my respect for it. Not only is this a worthy re-telling of a classic story. But Fine has managed to tackle some very serious issues without interfering with the overall narrative. This book confronts issues of racism and prejudice, sexual abuse, the abuse of power, and social justice. The factory manager contrives to drive his workers ever deeper into debt so that they can never escape from their servitude to the factory. When they are no longer able to work to his standard, they are sent to a Labor Camp where they will surely die within months. The threat of the camps is enough to stop protests and keep workers in line. That same fear allows the manager to force himself on his female secretaries. The level of complexity in this book is impressive without bogging down the story.
Of Metal and Wishes won’t be published until August 5. (I was fortunate to receive a digital advanced copy from Edelweiss.) But put that date on your calendar because you need to read this book!
Rating: 4.5 stars. I may revise that up to 5. . . .