Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Release: May 12, 2015
In the year 2054, after decades of gender selection, India has a ratio of five boys for every girl, making women an incredibly valuable commodity. Tired of wedding their daughters to the highest bidder and determined to finally make marriage fair, the women who formed the country of Koyanagar have instituted a series of tests so that every boy has the chance to win a wife.I'm a major demography enthusiast. Want to pore over population data and analyze shifting patterns? Call me up. Not sure how the demographic transition model works or how to use population pyramids? I'd be thrilled to explain. Talking about one-child laws around the world? Prepare for me to jump into the conversation, whether I was invited or not. Signing up for AP Human Geography next year? Amazing choice (and please let me study with you).
Sudasa doesn't want to be a wife, and Kiran, a boy forced to compete in the test to become her husband, has other plans as well. Sudasa's family wants nothing more than for their daughter to do that right thing and pick a husband who will keep her comfortable—and caged. Kiran's family wants him to escape by failing the tests. As the tests advance, Sudasa and Kiran thwart each other until they slowly realize that they just might want the same thing.
This beautiful, unique novel is told from alternating points of view—Sudasa's in verse, and Kiran's in prose—allowing readers to feel both characters' pain and their brave struggle for hope.
Given my enthusiasm for studying the ways human populations evolve and change, I knew 5 to 1 would prove to be the perfect book for me; it explores a potential extreme consequence of fertility limits and the gender selection that results. And in this regard, I was not let down—Holly Bodger crafts a strange-yet-somehow-plausible series of events stemming from a society that lacks girls. However, it also offers several other elements—a dystopian-esque setting, an intriguing view on feminism, a high-stakes competition—that left me equally fascinated.
5 to 1's major asset is, of course, its backdrop. Set in 2054, in an independent country formed within the boundaries of India, the story follows a society that controls its citizens' lives with an iron fist, offering wives to men who perform well enough in a series of tests, comfortable occupations to those with money, and dangerous jobs to those without. This setup will undoubtedly strike sparks of rage in readers, as any good fictional dictatorship should, but the most enthralling aspect of this government and society comes from the role of females within it. Women hold nearly all positions of power in Koyanagar, controlling the government and forcing men to follow strict rules if they want a comfortable and productive life—a contrast to the male-centric ruling systems of every major society today. However, girls are simultaneously treated as commodities, awarded to the highest performer in a series of tests at age 17, objectified much like real-life women in real-life media and culture. This contrast between familiar and new is not quite like any fictional situation I have encountered before, and it left me enamored throughout the course of the story.
The conflicting role of women is not the game's only worthwhile characteristic, though. The tradition is also worth reading about for pure suspense value. Although the competitions are not as cutthroat as I imagined—and perhaps even hoped—at the beginning of the book, I loved watching the boys competing for Sudasa's hand in marriage attempt to outplay each other, each with a different motivation and goal. Best of all is watching Kiran try not to win (and watching him slowly come to collaborate with Sudasa), completely inverting the usual rules and objectives of the tests.
I only have one complaint about 5 to 1: at only 244 pages and told partially in verse (a technique that effectively keeps the two points of view distinct), the story sometimes seems slightly sparse and may leave readers wanting a bit more. Kiran's backstory—his plans to fail the tests as a way to escape the country—is decently developed, but I received only a faded image of Sudasa's past aside from images of luxury; I am not entirely sure of her previous feelings toward her society or her premeditated plans for her time to choose a husband. I would have liked to see a bit more character development for both characters, more descriptions of their likes and dislikes, more quirks to make them seem human.
However, 5 to 1's sometimes-vague storytelling is not entirely to be faulted. Aside from making the novel a quick, refreshing read, it also emphasizes the importance of the three-day span to Sudasa and Kiran. Surely they both have interests and personalities outside of escaping the societal strictures of Koyanagar, but Bodger portrays these details as less relevant than the pressing mission at hand, setting strict priorities that produce a powerful plot.
Whether you are as obsessed with demography as I am or could not care less whether a country's population is dominated by children or the elderly, I recommend 5 to 1 if you want a short book to pull you out of a slump, if you're growing tired of monotonous dystopian settings, or if you want to read about a flawed version of feminism. It raises thought-provoking questions about the simultaneous power and submission that can result in a society in which women are considered extremely valuable resources, it develops a complex society and less-than-perfect traditions, and its one shortcoming can be forgiven due to the benefits it provides. Bodger's debut may be a quick read, but it will remain on my mind—and her books on my radar—long into the future.