The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman

In Sandra Newman’s novel The Country of Ice Cream Star, we open with a clan of 38 people, likely the descents of Senegalese refugees, in what used to be Lowell, Massachusetts, eighty years after the collapse of civilization. What we do know is that currently, everyone dies of a disease they refer to as “posies” around ages 18-20. Since no one lives terribly long, society changes quickly and has a short memory. For instance, there are “children’s tales” that all the white people in the U.S. fled to Europe when they started getting eviction notices to contain some outbreak. No one has living parents. Until one day they are burning old evacuation houses from “before times” because they contain skeletons of the dead (a bad omen, the believe), and out runs a white man, something they’ve never seen. Clearly older than eighteen, the man represents hope for a cure, and he eventually tells them where they can find it. But should they believe him?

The Country of Ice Cream Star is a wildly imaginative novel coming in at 580 pages. The society we are introduced to is small, collective, the nomadic “Sengels.” Through context and a bit of Googling, we (for this was another Biscuit book club pick) learned that Senegalese refugees live near Lowell, Massachusetts, today. Newman’s characters are likely based on these people from this French-speaking (among other languages) nation. The book is immersive in big part due to the language, which has evolved in the eighty years since the collapse. Verb tenses are invented, words have some French(ish) spelling or add something “Frenchy” to them, like “prettieuse” to mean “pretty useful.” Some words are mashed together to mimic how they sound instead of what is correct grammar. You may read “armen arm” instead of “arm in arm.” The way we fail to pronounce the end of words correctly today shows up in the novel. Instead of “concrete,” you’ll get “concree.”

But it’s not just the way people say words, it’s also playing with the root of words. Instead of being “thankful,” characters are “grateful,” but they don’t say grateful, they say “gratty.” And beyond that, the sentences are concepts that make sense but are not standard English:

Then she look back and say, “Ain’t guest you to a cigarette. Was ugly courtesy.”

“Be no fault. Yo, I take one gratty.”

I love books that play with language in a way that makes me struggle to some degree, but never push me into frustration. One challenge was figuring out who this new white man is. He speaks a language the Sengels call “rooish,” but he quickly picks up English when a small girl claims he belongs to her, like a pet. The Sengels refer to him as a “roo,” and again, through context, we realized he is Russian, and “roo” is likely “Russki” (though I thought at first “roo” might be derived from the French for “rough” to refer to the man’s pinkish skin compared to the dark complexions of the Sengels). While this discovery and teaching the new guy is happening, the leader of the Sengels is hiding that he has taken ill with posies. So, his sister, Ice Cream, investigates the Russian — Pasha is his name — and his claims of a cure that could save her brother.

Though only fifteen, Ice Cream is one of the most vivid protagonists I’ve ever read. I could take the easy route and say she’s “a bad ass,” but that wouldn’t suffice. These days we use that term to mean a teen girl or woman who beats people up like a man — and I hate that. Ice Cream is quick to wrestle and play-fight violently, but she is anti-death in regards to all humans, even enemies. She’s the most hardened softy ever; when she asks a war prisoner what his crimes were, he claims he will not tell her because he wants her to cry for him at his funeral. She replies, “Foo, ain’t worry that. I cry for any moron thing. It be no flatteries, but I going to cry.”

Part of Ice Cream’s boldness derives from her age, those years when we all think we’re invincible. As Pasha and Ice Cream become loving friends, he makes every effort to save her life in dangerous situations. At one point, she’s hiding under tree roots by a river for a few minutes only to yell up at Pasha that she’s bored, and if he doesn’t come down and entertain her, she’s coming back up. If Ice Cream gives an order, she reminds people, “Ain’t be asking, you will do this thing.” While she isn’t petulant or rude, Ice Cream has no concept of niceties, and there is something brave about that that struck a chord with me. Although she finds “heely shoes” insufferable, she’ll wear a long white dress as a symbol to her people when they go to war for the cure. Until we meet more Russians, Newman reminds us that every characters is under twenty, though the only way they are shaped by today’s fripperies resides in their names — Redbook, for example.

Sandra Newman takes us from East coast woods to New York City to Washington, D.C., all locations in new iterations and under surprising leadership. Even though it is a slower read because the language ins’t something you can speed your eyes over, The Country of Ice Cream Star is an adventurous quest with a unique protagonist and a deep, deep heart.

21 comments

  1. I always struggle with books that change language. My brain just goes, “NOPE.” I have to laser focus it until I get what is going on and then I can move forward with the story. If I were to ever write a story, it would probably be a dystopian/post-apocalyptic novel. I like destroying everything and then rebuilding it with the survivors.

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  2. Great review Melanie, and thanks for choosing The Country of Ice Cream Star for us. Definitely a good book club book. Although it was a slow read, the audio version kept my interest from beginning to end. ~B

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  3. Despite what you said to me in a comment elsewhere, this is the same old post-apocalyptic fiction I’ve been reading all my adult life. And that’s not a bad thing! It sounds very well done. It’s available on Audible – 26 hours – so I’ll add it to my list and listen in the next 12 months (got a lot of American listening to do already next year).

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  4. I had heard of this before, but in a context that made it sound like boilerplate YA dystopia. Your review definitely makes it sound more appealing, though the language changes would probably frustrate me – I just tried listening to the audiobook sample and couldn’t really follow it, so I imagine I would have the same problem on the page. Shame, as it does sound good!

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    • It definitely does not read like YA, and I can’t imagine a teen picking this up, to be honest. The first several pages of any novel like this are frustrating because the author teaches you how to read in this world. I hope you give it another try in text form.

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  5. Your review has re-ignited my interest in this book! I think I was hesitant about the language and whether it would be difficult or frustrating to read over the length of the whole book.

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  6. This probably goes to show how impatient of a reader I am, but I just can’t stand books that use that kind of altered or complicated language, I get too frustrated when I can’t understand exactly what the characters are saying (or meaning). Still, this book sounds really unique and clever!

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    • That such an interesting statement because I know you read books that I won’t because they’re too hard. For instance, pretty much anything Stephen Graham Jones. I find that his stories start off really cool, but somewhere in there he goes off the rails and I have no idea what’s happening. I hate that! And yet you’ve read several of his newer novels.

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  7. I randomly found this review that I missed. This is a book that I own and have tried to read multiple times and I keep getting stumped by the language. I have an easier time when words are completely made up because I can sometimes just assign them a meaning based on context. It is based off real words for any language I feel like I want actual translations so I can not miss the subtleness of word choice. Yer review does make me more inclined to try again. But I will have to wait for more brainpower to try again. Maybe 2022 will be nicer to me.
    x The Captain

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    • Yeah, I think maybe an intro or something by the author could have helped. For example, realizing there are Senegalese people who immigrated to Massachusetts in real life, and that people in Senegal speak French, made a huge difference in understand how the future might be different in that community.

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