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Nekropolis, Maureen F. McHugh, Eos, 2001, 257 pp.

Nekropolis is a stunning work, a massively ambitious novel that fulfills all of its promise. Paradoxically, in this book McHugh’s writing is pared down, cut down to essentials of purest prose and character. It’s also a relatively short work. By some alchemy that very few can reproduce, McHugh takes simple elements and constructs something rich and strange out of them. The book exists in the reader’s mind after reading the last page, kind of like an artifact of exquisite beauty, carved and perfect and glowing. As I said, each sentence itself seems as plain as could be, but taken together the writing is astounding, smooth and flowing and seductive. I’ll quote the first paragraph of the book to give a feel for how swiftly and silkily McHugh brings us into the story:

How I came to be jessed. Well, like most people who are jessed, I was sold. I was twenty-one, and I was sold three times in one day, one right after another; first to a dealer who looked at my teeth and in my ears and had me scanned for augmentation; then to a second dealer where I sat in the back office drinking tea and talking with a gap-toothed boy who was supposed to be sold to a restaurant owner as a clerk; and finally that afternoon to the restaurant. The restaurant owner couldn’t really have wanted the boy anyway, since the position was for his wife’s side of the house. (1)

The “I” of this first passage is Hariba. Nekropolis follows her story, a young woman from an impoverished area in a Moroccan city a few years from now. To escape the Nekropolis, as it is known, Hariba sells herself as a jessed servant; her loyalties are imprinted on her owner biologically. Most of this is crammed in the first paragraph I already quoted, and we learn more about her life as she goes through the day-to-day life of the jessed. She doesn’t get along that well with the mistress of her household, and she has met a biological construct (a harni, in the derisive), also of the household, who has fallen in love with her. The rest of the book can be summarized as simply as: Hariba tries to escape from the jessing process, and it makes her incredibly sick; later, she asks for help from one of her friends to escape Morocco and get to Spain. But again, McHugh’s simplicity is only the beginning of something wonderful and complex.

McHugh’s main strategy is to tell the book from several different points of view. Fans of McHugh’s superb debut, China Mountain Zhang, will find this familiar. The two books differ in that China Mountain Zhang followed more than one character, resolving or connecting only partially, while Nekropolis is tightly wound around Hariba herself. The first chapter is told by Hariba, the second by Akhmim (the harni), followed by a chapter by Hariba's mother and then by Hariba’s best friend, and back to Hariba to close. This is a remarkably effective strategy. There's one overall story, but we get threads of it from different people, making it all quite interesting, with some unfinished storylines to give us more of a sense of this world. It also makes the characterization much deeper.

I also enjoyed how the story continues past the point of reaching Spain. Nekropolis takes on a kind of quest structure up to that point, but the final section of the book belies that entirely. Hariba has put all of her energy into escaping her home country and reaching a different culture, and she has not considered what it might actually be like. But McHugh has considered it, and it becomes crucial to the book. I have a fondness for these types of books, the ones that take us past the point of the typical resolution. In this way, Nekropolis resembles Dorsey’s Black Wine, even though the narrative strategies of the two books couldn’t be more different. Dorsey recomplicates her story chronologically, while McHugh uses each viewpoint in a strictly sequential manner. Both books have a sense of a grown-up intelligence behind them, unlike many of the more adventure-based rite-of-passage stories in the genre.

I see Nekropolis mainly as a character study, although of course the slice of life approach needs an interesting subject to examine. Hariba’s life illustrates several important dilemmas that will be unavoidable in the near future. Will our knowledge of human physiology, like the biological nature of loyalty in the book, lead to abuse and further power imbalances? Will injustice be greater or lesser in times to come? Will we ever figure out how to treat our creations, in the case that they become intelligent? The power of Nekropolis comes from its blunt assessment of how one particular society in the future will deal with these issues, all in the context of one person’s life.

With Nekropolis, McHugh reaches a new plateau of excellence in her writing. I've enjoyed every one of McHugh's books but this one is by far the best. Highly recommended.

Last modified: October 26, 2003

Copyright © 2003 by James Schellenberg (

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