Scoop Review of Books

The Price of Perfection

Book Review
Monsters of Virtue by L.J. Ritchie (Escalator Press, $28)
Reviewed by Emily Brill-Holland

monsters-of-virtue-cover-copy-1Alternative History. Eugenics. Teenagers. Plato. Utopia. Vicious. Brilliant.

The title slashes across the cover; the two nouns abruptly incongruous and it is this fine line that is played throughout the novel. Who are the virtuous? Who are the monsters? Can one be both?

Also – what happens when you tell a group of children they are the brightest of the bright and then leave them alone?

Monsters is an alternative history, looking at a critical point in New Zealand’s history – the early 20th-century eugenics movement.

Eugenics is the theory and practice of controlled breeding to increase desirable traits as applied to humanity. Methods to exclude undesirable traits include sterilisation. Hitler would be the most well-known advocate for it in the early 20th century, however, eugenic research was being carried out all over the world. In 1928, eugenics became sharply relevant to New Zealand with the Mental Defectives Amendment Bill plus a pro-sterilisation clause being put before Parliament.

It is this moment in history that Ritchie focusses on.

In our reality, the significant clause was removed, and the Bill passed.

In Monsters of Virtue, the Bill is passed with clause removed but Parliament reaches a compromise with its prominent and wealthy eugenics supporters. A Eugenics Department is established, and construction starts quietly on a private utopian settlement north of Wellington, owned by secretive millionaire Walter Hannay.

Flashforward: it’s 1932 New Zealand but not as we know it…

I think I might be the most perfect girl that ever lived.’

Sitting in the Ōtaki River Gorge is the mysterious settlement of Galtonia. No one on the outside knows exactly what goes on behind those gates; just that a school has been set up for ‘exceptional young people’. If you succeed in getting in, your family will receive secret benefits and, as the Great Depression has hit, this is not something to be laughed at. 

Two of our protagonists, Nyx and Orion, already live there; our third, Eve, is desperate to get in. They all have their own reasons for being at the school and each one has a secret. The book is split, with roughly a third for each character, but Ritchie starts with a prologue. Giving a hint of Galtonia, Nyx and Orion, the reader is made aware of two things: one, Galtonia has secrets and two, so do Nyx and Orion. We then head into Eve’s third first, and it is through her eyes that we see Galtonia and its inhabitants in the daylight. However, we know that Galtonia is not quite what it seems and it is up to Eve to figure things out. As things get murkier in the middle, we switch to the two insider perspectives, muddying things even further as truths are revealed but anyone could be lying… Alliances are forged, and promises are broken.

One of the early reviewers said Monsters of Virtue and Ritchie reminded them of John Marsden and, having just re-read Marsden’s iconic Tomorrow series, I couldn’t agree more. There’s a sense of narration that is similar; something, perhaps, to do with the ANZAC voice writing the present tense perspective of teenagers in an extreme environment. These teenagers are just a bit younger than Ellie and her gang, however, and it shows. This is where the book veers into Lord of the Flies territory and, oh boy, is this a good thing.

Galtonia, with its multiple layers and secrets, is desirable and terrifying. With a creeping sense of horror around every corner, the suspense is unbelievably satisfying and the conclusion, when it comes, is dramatic, organic and charged.