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Essence by Lisa Ann O’Kane review


Neutrality is the key to longevity. This motto has governed 17-year-old Autumn’s life in the mid-21st-century Centrist cult, which believes that expressing emotions leads to Essence drain and premature death. But Autumn’s younger brother’s death casts her faith into question. While sprinting through a park in violation of Centrist teachings, she encounters Ryder Stone, an Outsider who claims Essence drain is nothing more than a Centrist scare tactic. She agrees to join his Community, a utopia of adrenaline junkies living in the abandoned remains of Yosemite National Park. Autumn learns about sex, drugs, and living life to the fullest. But as she discovers dark secrets beneath the Community’s perfect exterior, she realises that this illusion of paradise could be shattered…

I have read some reviews of this book ranging from lukewarm to harsh, but I have to say that for me, the good really outweighed the bad. I found it a thought-provoking and refreshingly different read.  If I had to give you three reasons why you should read this book, they would be:

The central theme – two opposing cults, and one girl’s transition between the two

I find the idea of cults really interesting – how a whole community can live in seclusion from the world, united by their beliefs. On the one hand I find the concept of such a lifestyle claustrophobic and oppressive, but on the other I’m drawn to the idea of the simplicity of not having to make your own decisions and the solid sense of belonging that being in a cult must give you. In the story Autumn moves from one extreme to the other – from the Centrists, who teach that emotions must be repressed, to the Yosemite community, where abundance and the pursuit of adrenaline-fuelled emotion is the sole focus. What struck me was the similarities between the two – really, even though at first she feels exhilarated by all the new things she tries, Autumn is no freer in Yosemite than she was with the Centrists. It’s also quite an unsettling read because of the feeling that there’s something not quite right going on behind the scenes in this seemingly carefree community.

Autumn’s journey of self-discovery

In Rex’s community everyone must wear a heart-rate monitor so that Rex can record the effects of what the Centrists would view as Essence draining activities, and they are all encouraged to push themselves to their limits to gain the highest readings possible. (The ultimate aim being to gather enough evidence to disprove the key tenets of Centrism altogether.) Autumn sets herself the challenge of walking a high-line across one of the highest points in Yosemite and this seemed a fitting motif in the book because really the story is all about her being caught between two extremes and trying to find her balance. In her single-minded pursuit of this goal and her eagerness to impress Ryder she loses sight of who she really is and what she originally set out to achieve (disproving the Centrist beliefs that caused her little brother’s death). This makes for some uncomfortable reading and it’s  hard to sympathise with Autumn as she becomes really quite selfish and hurts her friends Javi and Kadence, who for me were the most likeable people in the book. But Autumn’s determination carried me through and I couldn’t stop hoping that she would come good in the end.

The setting – Yosemite Park

I visited Yosemite a few years ago and it was wonderful to be transported back into this unique landscape. I remember the enclosed feeling of being on the valley floor at the foot of the towering granite cliffs, then the exhilarating, almost overwhelming feeling of being at the top of one and watching water shoot out over the side and plummet to the bottom far below. This environment of extremes was the perfect setting for the book, echoing the themes that play out in the story and giving a sense of how puny man is – and how temporary we are, whatever our beliefs about what  the meaning of life may be.

There were things in the book that didn’t ring true for me – Autumn’s readiness to leave everything she’s ever known in life behind when she flees the Centrists, for example. I could understand her urgent need to get away but wondered whether anyone could forget their family so quickly and show no real signs of missing them. I also found some of the scenes about sex, alcohol and drugs a little awkward and cheesy – I’m undecided whether that came from reading about them from Autumn’s perspective or because of the writing itself. And not all of the set-up was entirely believable – such as the explanations for how Rex’s community had been able to continue so long unnoticed by the outside world. But overall I found it an engaging read and it left me plenty to think about.

Thank you to Strange Chemistry for the ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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