If there's a villain in Enclave, it's a metavillain — one who is always offstage, yet whose actions have contributed to the characters' suffering: the indifferent and emotionally disconnected parent. In Kit Reed's caustic 2006 novel The Baby Merchant, babies were a priceless commodity, stolen, bought and sold as the ultimate accessory for the family who otherwise has everything. In Enclave, we're in a world where, once the baby has become a troublesome teen, they're not only no longer precious, but complete castoffs. Why bother to nurture a teen through the painful years of adolescence and young adulthood — hell, let alone listen to their feelings or respect them as human beings — when you can as easily toss them out like a pair of unfashionable shoes? Especially when doing so lets you avoid facing the fact that it was your own parental incompetence that let them go wildly astray in the first place.
When children go wrong, you can usually find an adult who has let them down. So sayeth Enclave, and most wisely. If it weren't for the nonstop flood of F-bombs, this is a book that could have been most effectively marketed as young adult. It captures the rage of betrayed youth in a manner that's both relentlessly truthful and that manages to avoid many clichés of youth-angst fiction. I'd have to say that its emotional truths are perhaps far more convincing than a lot of its plot contrivances, which seem to have been devised by Reed mainly so that her themes could play out against a suitably bleak and isolated backdrop. But they're powerful themes: that when adults neglect or abnegate their responsibilities to youth, or worse, throw all integrity under the bus, the damage to a kid's sense of trust and purpose is incalculable.
If there's a book to which Enclave can be said to have similarities, it might be Lord of the Flies. Except here, the adults are along on the island too, and in danger of plummeting into savagery even faster. The story is set in a kind of alternate present in which one hundred of the world's richest and most powerful families — with one hundred of the worst teenage troublemakers — have eagerly paid stupefying sums of money to an ex-Marine, Sgt. Whitemore, to take their problem children off their hands and into the protective cloister of his newfound Clothos Academy, situated within a renovated monastery on a remote island. The monastery is perched on a cliff so high it takes a helicopter to get there, which does make you wonder how the ancient monks built the place. If anyone can be resourceful to a superhuman degree, it's a cloistered, ascetic monk.
To get the parents to go along with this scheme, Sarge (as he's known) has convinced them that the turbulent state of world affairs is a precursor to armageddon, which ought to be along any minute now. By allowing him to shelter their kids on his island, he will save them from global doom. We have no idea if this is true. We're pretty sure it isn't. If it were, Sarge wouldn't have to show his charges carefully edited DVDs and pass them off as breaking news, so they'll appreciate what horrors they're missing. We also get the distinct idea that Sarge's client families know the end-of-days scenario is bogus, and they don't care. They just want their misbegotten progeny out of the picture. If they have to entertain a self-gratifying fiction that they're saving the kids' lives to let themselves feel better about themselves, then fine.
The kids? Well, they're a sad lot. You have Killer Stade, who killed a man, as his nickname might indicate, except no one seems to care that the act was self-defense against a molester. There's poor transgendered Zander, and Teddy Regan, prince of some tiny country whose epilepsy (Teddy's, not the country's) is an embarrassment to the royal family. Here, some of Reed's satire is a little too on-the-nose. References to a "hotel heiress" and a crazy Hollywood brat who shaved her head are eye-rolling.
But when Reed — who published this book at age 77 — gets into her teenage characters' heads, their resentment, confusion, and anger towards the failings of the adults in their lives ring agonizingly true. Stade is one of the book's viewpoint characters, and there's a very real undercurrent of emptiness — without lapsing into self-pity — to the way he talks about his only true friends being fellow World of Warcraft players whom he's never met IRL. But riding shotgun is an inchoate understanding that things could be, should be, better for him and for Teddy, who may be becoming the first true flesh and blood friend he's ever had. And whatever the Academy is trying to be isn't it.
Sarge has a messiah complex. His experiences in the Gulf War have given him something deeply strange to prove. He really wants to save lives, not destroy them. He is sincere in his belief that by taking a group of drug addicts, delinquents, dropouts, diva celebutantes, punks, outcasts and losers, and subjecting them to quasi-military regimentation in his "Academy," he can, in fact, turn their lives around and make them mature, productive adults. He thinks the Academy is his ark.
Bizarrely, he sets himself up to fail from the get-go. Many of his adult staff are bottom-of-the-barrel no-hopers. His doctor is a stinking alcoholic. His IT expert is a guy facing life for a glorious string of felonies. The only member of Sarge's staff with her head on straight — relatively — is the physician's assistant, Cassie Rivard, who either loves Sarge, or loves her idealized image of Sarge. Finally, there's the intensely pitiful Benedictus, the last of the monastery's original residents. He isn't a monk, just an orphan the monks adopted, but everyone calls him "Brother Bennie" anyway. And this saddest of sad sacks, with a past upon which the story will turn, is torn between the happiness he feels at having company on the lonely island once again, and the way the Academy has overturned the routines of the only life he's known.
Enclave joins the ranks of speculative fiction exploring the concept of a closed society and its inherent stability or lack thereof, particularly when presented with an unforeseen variable that tests its members' ability and willingness to stick together to overcome their problems, or collapse into chaos. Usually in these stories, the latter happens, because you tend to get a more exciting story that way. But while Enclave sticks to that formula so far as it goes, Reed builds an overpowering tension as the novel accelerates into its final chapters. Couple this effective thriller storytelling with everything the book has to say about the often frought relationships between youths and adults, and about the duties in those relationships that are all too easily ignored or discarded, and you have a powerful tale of an island of lost souls that will stay under your skin for some time.
Finally, a spoiler-free note about the ending. Reed tells us in the acknowledgements that editor Melissa Singer prompted her to add the brief, 41st chapter "Coda." Frankly I found it just as gratuitous (and silly) as the epilogue of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. When you pick this one up, see if you don't agree that the ending of Chapter 40 is the right ending to the book.