Of This New World by Allegra Hyde (University of Iowa Press, 2016)
At the end of “Free Love,” the third story in Allegra Hyde’s award-winning collection, the narrator, Almond, reflects on her lingering sense of alienation in her grandmother’s household: “But I still feel strung out, loose, like a fish on land, or a girl on the moon, or a flower no one recognizes taking root in an unexpected place” (39). This line encapsulates the ambivalent condition of the collection’s protagonists: They are unrecognizable flowers, girls on the moon, struggling to feel anchored as their quests for utopia falter.
As Hyde describes on her acknowledgments page, the word utopia “means both ‘good place’ and ‘no place’—a paradox by definition.” Of This New World dives into this paradox, unearthing the placelessness that can result from a fixation on paradise. In “Americans On Mars!” a young couple journey to a colony on the red planet, eager to escape an ecologically devastated Earth. In “After the Beginning,” Eve struggles to make a life for herself and a sulking Adam after their expulsion from Eden. In “VFW Post 1492,” a crippled veteran envisions his twin brother’s romantic romps through Istanbul. Whether a literal place or an idealized condition, utopia extends its tormented promise, beguiling characters with visions of perfection that fade like mirages the closer they get.
Nowhere is this danger clearer than in “The Future Consequences of Present Actions.” The story is a fictionalized retelling of Transcendentalist Charles Lane’s efforts to join the Shaker community. In his eagerness to find a place for himself, Lane inadvertently enlists his son into indentured servitude and rescinds his paternal rights to see him. The narrative juxtaposes accounts of Lane’s movements with stale reports of his son’s lusterless, hyper-controlled life with the Shakers, creating an effect that is quietly unsettling.
“Delight®,” another favorite, also considers what is sacrificed in the name of paradise. The story takes place in a corporatized suburbia filled with PoliteTableTalk®, OldTimeyTunes®, and ExtraFoamyRootbeer®. I love how the playful satire carries me through to an ending that is unexpectedly grave. Of This New World contains no cheap jokes, and “Delight®” is a testament to the smart humor that zips joyfully through the collection without foregoing seriousness of character or plot.
While a clear thematic thread joins the individual pieces, there’s a remarkable breadth that makes each story fresh. The characters are distinct: A world-weary antiques store owner, the young children of doomsday preppers, a Navy SEAL turned tree hugger. The settings range from 19th century New England to Eleuthera, Mexico to Mars. The collection also raises essential questions about how colonialism and climate change lurk within utopian ideals. Such prescient observations infuse it with great urgency. The book is a must-read for its storytelling power, its ecological awareness, and the sharp prose through which Hyde renders worlds both real and imagined.