Friday, October 2, 2009

John Dollar (Marianne Wiggins)

Wow. So my uncle gave me this book a while back and told me it was great, but it just sat on my shelf for a few months while I was reading other things. This week I decided to pick it up and check it out finally, and I am sure glad I did. John Dollar is an excellent book, poetic and surreal. It's the first time I've ever come close to using those lame, New York Times Book Review words like "haunting, devastating, powerful," and all that. This book is incredible.


Shortly before the end of World War I, recently widowed Charlotte Lewes decides to leave England and everything that reminds her of her late husband. She heads to British-occupied Burma and becomes a teacher for the children of English citizens living abroad. After slowly alienating herself from Burmese society over the course of several months, Charlotte eventually meets John Dollar, a sailor, and the two fall in love. A brief time later, the parents of Charlotte's students decide to go on a short pleasure cruise to visit some of the local islands. Tragedy strikes, however, when an earthquake-spawned tidal wave wrecks the ships and strands John, Charlotte, and eight young girls on a deserted tropical island.

Long story short: Lord of the Flies, but with girls. It's so much more than that, though. For some reason, novels set in and around India and Southeast Asia—Inheritance of Loss and Life of Pi come to mind—always tend to have this mystical air about them. This one's not any different. Wiggins' writing makes Lord of the Flies seem stiff and heavy handed. She doesn't overload the book by inserting all kinds of political and social commentaries. Instead, she deals with the warped reality perceived by these young girls, who had hardly begun to understand their own world before being tossed into this new, deadly paradise. Wiggins also makes some very interesting choices in John Dollar that I think pay off in the long run, such as never getting overly technical, instead keeping the narrative on the fringes of reality. She intentionally leaves certain aspects of the story out and describes some scenes or passages of time only vaguely. This sparse, poetic style helps the reader focus in on what really matters. I never felt bogged down or as if I just had to get through this lengthy description before I got to the good stuff. The whole thing is the good stuff. I flew through this book—it's just over 200 pages—and couldn't stop thinking about it during the moments when I wasn't reading it. There's not a whole lot more I can say about it, other than this is a fantastic novel and you should definitely check it out. Feel free to borrow it from me if you have to; I'd gladly let you have it for a few days, because that's all you'd really need.


John Dollar
by Marianne Wiggins

Yes, it's another "what happens when society is not around to enforce its rules" book. No, it's not like any other I've ever read, though. Wiggins takes control of the situation in a way I didn't think was possible, and revives a timeless idea. She doesn't make it about society and it's rules. The book is about these poor girls and how they react to what's happening around them.

The writing is so beautiful, but not in a lofty, lyrical way. Wiggins handles sex and cannibalism with equal grace and poise. Ugh, I hate how I sound right now, like some kind of stuck up literati. This book=SO GOOD.

John Dollar is concise, there's really no other way to describe it. Marianne Wiggins gives you exactly what you need and nothing more. I'm extremely impressed.


I really hope you go check this one out if you can. I don't think I ever would have picked this book up on my own—the cover is kind of ugly, and that's how I usually judge books :P. I'm definitely going to have to thank my uncle for handing this one off to me (thanks Uncle John!). Have you read any great books lately that I should check out? Feel free to make suggestions.

Keep reading, Genoshans!


  1. Hi, just found this while trying to remember certain things about the plot. Telling my daughter about it (she's reading Lord of the Flies). I read it 10 years ago and it stuck with me. Your review is from 2009, I see. Thanks!

  2. Hi, just found this while trying to remember certain things about the plot. Telling my daughter about it (she's reading Lord of the Flies). I read it 10 years ago and it stuck with me. Your review is from 2009, I see. Thanks!


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