I was not really prepared for how beautiful The Only Ones was.
The story begins with Inez (or simply “I”, which is a poetic choice for a first-person narrative), a young woman of little education but high wit and what we call ‘street smarts’, stepping off a bus in New Jersey, but not New Jersey as we know it. This is a near-future America that has been ravaged by plague and virus. Diseases that readers might recognize – tuberculosis and the flu, for example – as well as what’s referred to as The Big One wipe out millions at a time, leaving those who are left in a damaged and diseased world. Inez, who comes from a desolate background, has done whatever she could to survive – which includes selling teeth, fingernails, and now she has come to The Farm to sell her genetic material. The buyer, Rini Jaffur, is a woman who has lost her daughters to illness and seeks to replace them. As Inez seems to be immune (or “hardy”) to the dangers of this world, they clone her, but when the buyer backs out at the last minute, Inez promises to care for the child herself, despite the fact that she is unprepared to be a mother. Inez narrates with the frankness of a woman who has seen it all and who has had to grow up at a very young age. She has lived a hard life and become a realist because of it. She is surprised by little and shows the strength of someone who is prepared to do anything to keep herself afloat.
The novel begins with questions of ethics – is it a crime against nature to clone, to combat the high infant mortality rate with science, and is the resulting child a crime against nature herself? Is the child, as a product of cloning and her “gene-for-gene replica”, destined to become exactly like her? As Inez learns to care for and protect Ani, the child she is left with, she is continually asking herself this. It is a discussion of nature vs. nurture, and Inez is careful about the “environmental factors” that Ani is exposed to. As her motherly affections for Ani grow and she learns to care for someone other than herself, her questions and concerns evolve. Inez now not only is concerned with keeping Ani alive and safe, but is also determined to give Ani a better life than the one she had. She wants to know that Ani is ‘normal’ and is growing up like other children. She wants Ani to be educated and not have to live a life on the streets like she did, and is constantly fighting to get her child into good schools. And most of all, she wants to protect Ani from the truth that might put them both in danger. As the novel evolves, Inez begins to ask existential questions about her purpose in life, about motherhood, and the choices she has made.
The Only Ones is not only beautifully written and incredibly moving, but also intelligent and sure to spark some debate. In a similar vein to Never Let Me Go, Carola Dibbell raises questions for readers about our existence and what qualifies as ‘humanity’, as well as offers a unique view into a very possible near-future. It will move you, it will make you use your brain. It should frighten you a little bit. It should make you want to call your mother. This is a cant-miss novel, and one that will surely stick with you after the last page is turned.