A Review of Terri Favro's Sputnik's Children
Review by Liz Worth
Terri Favro’s author bio says it all. Having grown during the Cold War, Favro was told, “If they drop the bom, we’ll be the first to go.” Those words are reminiscent of Alphaville’s seminal hit “Forever Young”: “Hoping for the best, but expecting the worst / are you gonna drop the bomb or not?"
There is a certain tone that tends to come through artists who were or are influenced by the possibility of annihilation. Punk and new wave artists like Johnny Thunders, The Dickies, The Forgotten Rebels, and the Red Rockers all covered P.F. Sloan’s 1960s protest song “Eve of Destruction,” an anthem that befitted the Cold War-era reality that the future was indeed grim.
That same bleak flavour is found in Sputnik’s Children. Starting out at Fallsview Casino Hotel in Niagara Falls, Ontario, we are introduced to Debbie Reynolds Biondi, a talented, neurotic comic book creator. Biondi is the mastermind behind a cult comic hit, Sputnik Chick: The Girl With No Past.
Pressured to come up with an origin story for her character, Biondi’s narrative quickly dives into her childhood, which took place in an alternate timeline called Atomic Mean Time. While the premise that Favro offers here might sound like full-on sci-fi, the writing itself is highly accessible despite the novel’s building intensity and tightly-wound narrative.
Still, Favro has created a strange beast with Sputnik’s Children. Often breathless, the book straddles a strange sentiment that sits somewhere between panic and resignation. One can’t help but wonder whether that feeling is a holdover from the author’s own experiences, now replicated here.
Favro’s clear, concise writing style is hugely important to this book. It’s what makes the narrator believable. Biondi is highly suspect as a storyteller. Sure, she may be a successful comic book creator, but can we trust her? The narrative is a mash-up of flashbacks, and much of the storyline relies on Biondi sharing her own origin story. In Atomic Mean Time, much of the world is similar to how we know it, but things are also slightly askew.
To create a world through an unreliable narrator is always a gamble: When do we get to see the character’s cracks show through? What hints are we looking for? Where can we place our trust?
There are some cracks in the façade: a lorazepam dependency and a preference for drinking, a somewhat rootless life cradled by cult celebrity status. Does Biondi have a firm grasp on reality, or is she just an artist who’s no longer able to separate imagination from reality?
It’s an interesting premise, and Favro leaves everything on edge with maddening open-endedness throughout. At some point, it’s tempting to even wonder if her main character is even alive, as her existence seems as ephemeral as her narration.
If there is to be one quibble with Sputnik’s Children, however, it’s that present-day Biondi seems to get such little time in the storyline. Favro brings the reader deep into Biondi’s childhood years, and quite effectively. This is not subdued YA material. Favro hits hard with political, feminist themes throughout, fearlessly bringing female sexuality and body image to the forefront. Still, with so much depth to this character’s past, and so much confusion within her adulthood, it’s hard not to want to see more Biondi as she is today, here in our present world.
After all, this is the story of a woman who grew up in a time of shifting values and unpredictable realities, time travelers and nuclear fallout, anarchy and societal deceit. Who might she really be today? And is it any wonder that she would become such a questionable presence in her own storyline?
There are no clear answers, but it seems as though that’s how Favro wants it, and that approach is perfectly matched to the curious, smart worlds and parallel realities that co-exist in Sputnik’s Children.
Liz Worth is a poet and novelist. Her sixth book, The Truth is Told Better This Way, will be published by BookThug in 2017. She is also a professional tarot reader and astrologer. You can reach her at www.lizworth.com.