Girl in the Arena - Lise Haines Girl in the Arena is a science fiction novel. Yet it does not tell a future story; it is firmly anchored in a – only slightly altered – ‘now’ by using plenty of pop-culture references to today’s society (Youtube, Second Life, Sofia Copolla ...).

Closing one eye the fictional turns of the past decades and the imagined outcome for the present even seem almost likely. But the likelihood of the exact setting does not strike me as so important. If you peel away the alterations, you basically find the engaging story of a young woman who grew up inside a very constrictive and conservative sub-culture - comparable to a religious sect minus a deity – whose present leader cunningly makes tons of money by selling his congregation’s members as both admired and dreaded celebrities to the media (fan merchandising included), by feeding the masses’ delight in violence and death and by having a tight grip on the members’ private fortunes.

The heroine has started having doubts about her community’s harsh set of 128 rules and wonders if the founder’s original ideas are misinterpreted by the leader. The reader wishes for her to be able to break herself free, but she is – quite realistically – aware of the effects her refusal to comply would have familywise and moneywise: Not fulfilling her family’s expectations would mean abandoning her emotionally disabled (maybe autistic) younger brother she fiercely loves, upsetting her manic-depressive mother, who has a couple of unsuccessful suicide attempts behind her, and could result in losing the house. In spite of her resolution not to become a replica of her fanatic, unhappy and heavily dependent mother, her beliefs and her behaviour show that her childhood spent inside the community has rooted deeply and the only friends she can turn to for advice and support are members as well who offer only limited comprehension or none.

Lise Haines has found a clever way to make us wonder about restrictive communities, about good intentions / idealistic theories turned fundamentalistic without (mis)using the concept of an existing church or association to demonstrate. I admire that. Also she points out how only slight changes in the law or even one-time exceptions can result in a chain of unforeseen consequences that alter society and for instance it’s view on the matter of life and death. A third sociocritical impulse deals with the power of the media and how a single powerful person can play the media. An incident noted casually that shocked me, for instance, was the promise of free-parking for all spectators who left the arena within 20 minutes after a show: The arena management speculated on the “good trampling” to occur, recorded as a body count on the margin of the TV coverage, which guaranteed the undivided interest of the viewership.

Last but not least it remains to say that all this would not have sufficed for a four star rating. The family problems and how Lyn dealt with them, the tender relationship to her brother, her slow personal growth, her strength and also her surprise, when she recognized she liked her enemy in a way, were well done in my opinion. Even the unusual use of hyphens for direct speech added to the quiet melody of the enfolding drama.

A comment about the cover: I love it, but it is not correct. Lyn has a shorn head at the time she enters the arena as a gladiator.