Ever a thieving magpie, it was a glint of burning copper that attracted me to Alice Broadway’s Ink. Intricately woven foliage and feathers shone out from the cover in a delightful Warwick bookshop and I knew without question that I simply had to buy it. The recently published sequel Spark is similarly shiny, with birds and branches picked out this time in a deep metallic red. When I came across it a few months ago (and bought it, of course), the book reminded me of Ink and prompted me to move it to the top of my reading pile.
Broadway’s debut novel introduces us to the brave Leora Flint, a talented artist who lives in a place called Saintstone. She belongs to a community in which every detail of a person’s life — the good and the bad — is tattooed on the skin for all to see, making privacy impossible and deception easily uncovered. After death, the body is flayed and the skin turned into a book that functions as both afterlife and soul. The book is weighed so that its fitness for remembrance can be judged — if it is deemed to tell the story of a worthy life, the deceased will be remembered through the preservation of the book, but if the pages show instead a life of wickedness and evil, the book will be incinerated and the life and soul forgotten.
Saintstone’s customs and traditions are under threat from a group of exiles known as blanks, whose skin is empty and unmarked and therefore hides what can only be the grievous sins they have committed. The idea of blankness draws revulsion from the people of Leora’s home and especially from their charismatic leader Mayor Longsight, who is convinced that the blanks are plotting war against Saintstone and that there are traitors in their midst who must be rooted out and punished. It is in these circumstances that Leora must come to terms with the death of her father. Initially believing him to have been a good and honest man, she comes to learn that he was keeping secrets and that his book now runs the risk of being destroyed. Leora must work quickly to exonerate her father and ensure that he is not consigned to the oblivion of being forgotten.
In this first novel of an already successful series, Broadway skilfully establishes the world of Saintstone and its systems of belief. She raises important questions about the stories through which belief is formulated and expressed, both those that seek to capture something of our own identities and those that claim to have the measure of our neighbours. The narrative itself is interspersed with stories that are used by the authorities of Saintstone to uphold the central tenets of its creed — the inked are good; the blanks are bad. By displaying these stories against narration of Leora’s growing struggle with her faith, Broadway encourages us to question the moral certainty that often blinds us when it comes to hearing other versions of a story. How can we be sure that the stories we believe in are a fair and balanced record of our lives and our society? Might there be other ways of telling them that make the villains look like heroes?
Broadway offers us in Ink an astute examination of the socially constructed nature of morality and the way in which the border separating right from wrong is blurred and open to abuse. She creates in Leora Flint a timely model of the citizen who is jolted from the certainty of childhood and comes to learn that we must always question what society has told us to be true. For the young adult audience of Ink, who may well have started to interrogate the stories they themselves believe in, this is a crucially important lesson, but it is arguably even more important for any older readers who have forgotten how to challenge the accepted wisdom and instead preserve it as the only form of truth.