April 1, 2013

Review: The Lost Girl by Sangu Mandanna

The Lost Girl by Sangu Mandanna
Published: 2012, Balzer + Bray
Genre: Young Adult Science Fiction
Source: Library book
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When I return to Amarra's room, I stare down at the snake on my wrist. I want to tear it out of my skin, strip away the tattoo and everything else that Amarra did and made me do too. I look into the mirror and wonder if I am looking at her. What is this power the dead have over the ones they leave behind? It's strange and beautiful and frightening, this deathless love that human beings continue to feel for the ones they've lost. 

At its heart, The Lost Girl is a story about what could have been. What life could have been like for Amarra's family, had she not died so suddenly. What life could have been like for Amarra herself. What life could have been like for Eva, if she was born in her own right, to a family who loved her and expected her to be nothing more than herself. The Lost Girl examines what happens when the "could have beens" in life come into question. How do humans cope when the reality of our lives do not fit with what we wanted, what we expected to happen?

Eva has grown up with the knowledge that her life was never her own, that all of her actions and decisions would be influenced by Amarra, a girl living halfway across the world in Bangalore, India. For, like Frankenstein's Creature, Eva was created, not born. Created to be the genetic duplicate of Amarra. Amarra's echo. A replacement, should Amarra ever die. Eva must be prepared to replace Amarra at any point, so her entire life has been spent reading Amarra's journals, studying pictures, and learning all about Amarra's life, while not truly able to live her own. 

Just when Eva begins to finally understand her own desires and need for individuality, the thing she has been simultaneously dreading and expecting happens: Amarra dies, which means that Eva must pack up her life and relationships thus far so that she can fill in for Amarra. But even after spending her entire life in preparation to fill Amarra's shoes, nothing could prepare Eva to become Amarra.

The Lost Girl is not the first story to tackle the issues of cloning or genetic counterparts, nor will it be the last, but the sense of familiarity does not reduce its poignancy. The Loom and Echoes like Eva exist not to supplement or better their "Others," but to literally replace them. Perhaps the tension Amarra feels towards Eva is not unwarranted; Amarra's parents commissioned Eva's creation for primarily selfish reasons, so that they would not have to live without their eldest daughter. One of the Loom creators, Matthew, reveals that Echoes are only a step in the eventual goal to extend life and create extra bodies for a person's soul. Along with Eva, readers must figure out the reasons behind her existence before she can fully understand her present and future. 

I absolutely loved how Mary Shelley's Frankenstein acted as an inspiration for The Lost Girl on both a literal and metaphorical level. Like the Creature, Eva was created. The Weavers at the Loom are akin to Victor Frankenstein, although their goals are ultimately more lofty than Frankenstein's ever were. While Frankenstein simply wanted to create life, the Weavers ultimately want to continue life. Echoes like Eva are only small steps towards the Loom's eventual goals: immortality and dormant bodies that their genetic match can occupy should they ever die in their original bodies. Instead of simply addressing the influence that Frankenstein had upon her story, Mandanna goes a step further and makes the story of Frankenstein important within her own story. Echoes like Eva are forbidden to read Frankenstein, lest they form their own thoughts about their creation and try to rebel against their makers. And, understandably, after she reads the novel Eva is able to sympathize with the Creature in a way that most people do not. Even referring to it as "the Creature" rather than "the Monster" helps readers see where Eva's sympathies lie, and also the parallels within her own life. The Lost Girl is no retelling of Frankenstein, but it cleverly uses Frankenstein as an inspiration and building block, and I found it to be very well done.

At times The Lost Girl was a very difficult book to read. Much like Frankenstein's creation, Eva is seen as something unnatural, not human and certainly not worthy of life. Amarra's mother looks at Eva and believes that it is Amarra staring back at her, through Eva's eyes. Her father, boyfriend Ray, and Amarra's friends look at her and see what was lost when Amarra died. Only a very few people, Amarra's siblings and Eva's guardians among them, look at Eva and see Eva. Not Amarra. Not an Echo. Not some twisted freak that should not exist. Eva for herself. Although it is clear that Eva does have a strong sense of self from the beginning, throughout the book she is forced to repress herself again and again. As if witnessing her denying herself her own pleasures and goals is not hard enough, the scenes where Eva is being bullied for her creation and other circumstances beyond her control are simply heartbreaking. 

My sympathy towards Eva's plight speaks volumes to the power of The Lost Girl. If I was in Amarra's situation, forced to keep meticulous notes and photos of my life for someone who might one day replace me if I died, or was a family member or friend of Amarra, I would have a very difficult time accepting Eva myself. I'm sure I would think of her as a usurper and not deserving to fill Amarra's shoes. The fact that Mandanna makes me sympathetic to both the protagonist and her persecutors really emphasizes the complexity of the issues at hand.

The major issue I had with this book, however, was the believability of it all. This criticism is not against the worldbuilding or characterization. I just never understood why Amarra's parents
and many others like hers would want to create Echoes of their children. There's pain enough in losing a loved one, and I can't understand how having an Echo of your child (or spouse, or sibling, or friend) wouldn't be a constant reminder of what was lost. How would that not be more painful? Mandanna also hinted at a possible history between Amarra's parents and Matthew from The Loom, but I really could not figure out why Amarra's parents seemed so paranoid about losing their children that they'd risk creating illegal Echoes for each of their young, healthy children. This is where I think The Lost Girl does diverge from its Frankenstein inspiration and not in a good way. Victor Frankenstein created life more as a scientific experiment and to test the limits of human capabilities. While the people running The Loom ostensibly have a similar purpose, many of these creations seem to be done at the behest of normal families. By simultaneously simplifying the reasons for the creation of Echoes and then not going into enough detail about them, I felt at odds with Mandanna's overarching premise.

I expected The Lost Girl to delve into some deep philosophical issues related to life, identity, family ties, personhood, power dynamics, and more. While it certainly makes the reader question all of these issues, what I did not expect was just how difficult it would be to read about Eva's struggle for acceptance. Although it was challenging at times and I struggled with the believability of the premise, The Lost Girl is definitely worth a read.

*As an aside, I just wanted to mention that a number of elements present in this book remind me of my all-time favorite book exploring the issues associated with genetic manipulation and cloning: Nancy Farmer's The House of the Scorpion. It's an incredibly powerful book that should appeal to those who like The Lost Girl.*
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Amanda loves few things better than sitting down with a cup of tea and a book. She frequently stays up far too late, telling herself she just needs to finish one more page. When she's not wrapped up in the stories of others, Amanda works as a children's librarian in a public library.


  1. I loved this one and I'm so glad you enjoyed it, Amanda! I never had trouble with the believability of this, but then again, I am very inexperienced with grief. I think if I return to this when I'm older, I'd probably have the same issues you did, although now, I found it to be very poignant. I fully intend to read House of Scorpion, though, so I'm glad that one has your solid seal of approval! :)

    1. Thanks, Keertana! I'm not actually experienced at all with grief, so my points here are based on estimates of how I'd feel. I may come to understand Mandanna's treatment of it better or worse over time. And I agree that it was a very poignant book, regardless of the small problems I had. And yay! I hope you're able to read it soon! It's such a good book and I'd LOVE to discuss it with others. :)

  2. Wonderful review, Amanda! I loved The Lost Girl, loved all the ethical and moral questions that arose, and I even though it was heartbreaking to read, for the reasons you mentioned, it also had some hopeful and uplifting messages too.

    Loved the character of Matthew by the way, wasn't he just really intriguing?

    And I like the point you made about wondering if parents would really want to have an echo of their child, because it would always remind them of their original loss. I thought of it differently: if an echo is really YOUR child, your child's DNA replicated, then wouldn't that essentially still be your child? There wouldn't have been a loss at all because an echo isn't supposed to be a replacement, it's supposed to be the EXACT carbon copy of your child (of course, as we see in the book, this isn't the case at all.) Anyway, I like that this book poses so many thought provoking questions and that readers can interpret it differently:)

    And I own The House of the Scorpion but haven't read it so I appreciated your end note:)

    1. Thank you, Heather!

      Matthew was such an anti-hero and I felt like Mandanna kept skirting around bigger issues and implications related to his character. I'd love to learn more about him and how his mind works.

      Your point about echoes is also very interesting, Heather. I think Mandanna showed how physically and genetically an echo could be your child - but that doesn't make it become your child. I kind of compared them to identical twins. Still distinct individuals and all. But, really, I do love that I can look at this book from so many different angles. That's the mark of a good book, in my opinion.

      And you need to read that ASAP Heather! Such a good book!

  3. The believability factor ruined this for me too! As someone who's lost someone extremely important, I could not imagine doing what Amarra's parents did. It was inconcievable. So it lost a few points, but I appreciated how well it was written.
    Great review!

    1. I do remember reading that in your review, Maja. It seems a little odd to me, but who knows what Mandanna really intended with that message? It's up to us readers to determine that and debate meaning and the ethics and all. Thank you, Maja!

  4. This is such a gorgeous, thoughtful review, Amanda. I love when you pointed out that this book makes you sympathize with both Eva and Amarra. I thought that the author did that so well - capturing the difficulty of the issue on all sides. But I agree, I had a lot of trouble with the believability of this book. It seemed like the loom was trying to get these people to believe that they were replacing their child, but I can't imagine where an echo could ever work in that situation. I wish the author had let us meet others to get a sense of it. But fantastic points about grief and letting go, vs. Amarra's parent's decision to try and prolong life. I wonder if this author will write more about these characters?

    1. Aw thank you, Lauren! Meeting other echoes and their others would have been fantastic - you're so right about that. It would have elevated the story to an even higher level. Maybe if Mandanna ever does write a sequel she can incorporate that into it? I think I read she hasn't ruled out the possibility of returning to Eva's story eventually, but not right away. Let's hope she does, though! I'd like more. :)


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