A dystopian novel about the power of storytelling. When a brutal civil war ravages the country, and contagious fever has decimated the population, a woman ekes out a lonely living on the family farmstead by bartering her letter-writing skills.
Alyson Hagy's Scribe is a lean, hard wolf of a thing. There's something feral and panting about it. Vicious. It is sour and cruel and vivid, with a long memory and blood in its teeth. It gives nothing away ... Scribe's story is clear, simple and plain. In Hagy's future, most everything has been lost. Literacy is no exception. But her main character is a professional writer of letters...a man named Hendricks,...comes to her house one day to ask her to write him a letter, then to take the letter to a certain crossroads and read it aloud. And that's it. The entire book is the wish and the fulfillment, nothing more. Some people would call Scribe a short book. A fast read. But it isn't really either of those things. Really, it's a hungry book — one where every sentence seems to imply a second that it never offers; where every page and every paragraph offers the ghost of a feast, but never lets you eat.
In nonliterate societies, minstrels occupy a place of power, both as guards of the people’s history and remodelers of the myths they tell. The protagonist of Scribe is a refreshing version of this ancient archetype, largely because she is a she ... As befits this allegory, the prose is sensuous. This is a novel written in dreamily violent language ... The violence is not solely stylistic; entering Hagy’s brutalized America, the reader must be prepared for a society where life has no value. Hagy goes to great lengths to decontextualize her narrative and de-linearize time, both to underscore the perennial aspects of human nature and to create a mythlike atmosphere for her patchwork of retold tales and war lore. Unfortunately, these methods can amplify reader disorientation. In better moments, the blurred landscape and timescape allow the language to become as lulling as an incantation. Scribe, which begins with the baying of hounds and ends with silence, reminds us on every page that humans remain the storytelling animal, and that therein might lie our salvation. But the book’s momentum derives from the relationship between the protagonist and [a mysterious man named] Hendricks ... In this brave new world, a woman with a pen may prove mightier than a man with a sword.
Though setting, identity and motivations are shrouded in Blue Ridge mist, Hagy’s language is intense and crisp. What she allows us to see is striking ... Hagy does a splendid job of intertwining the strange threads in her novel, and readers with a taste for magical doings will not be disappointed. Scribe is ultimately an odd but very engaging mixture of the creepy and the redemptive, with a resolution that dispels the murkiness in a clever and startling way.