Book Review: Ninety East Ridge by Stephen Reilly

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I first read this book in 2002 when it was originally released. It’s probably every sibling’s worst nightmare to be continually mentioned only in reference to your more famous brother or sister but that’s how I found out about this book. Matthew Reilly had published several immensely successful books, which I had read, and when I heard his brother, Stephen, had published a novel of his own, I was interested to read it.

I have now read it again thirteen years later as part of several I am rereading in order to post reviews on Goodreads for books that I have only rated. It’s much as I remembered, which is a positive.

Ninety East Ridge contains numerous characters but the two who dominate the story are Anna Spires and Matthew Turner. Anna is a talented engineer with a vision – to build a new civilisation. Without money, without fossil fuels, without defence forces. And with direct democracy, with science that isn’t for profit, with equality for all. Matt is a games designer with a lack of direction. When Anna announces to the world’s media that she’s going to build this civilisation in the middle of the Indian Ocean, Matt is enamoured with the idea and enchanted by her. He hitchhikes across Australia and hops a fishing trawler to become the new civilisation’s first refugee.

Oh, and the civilisation in the middle of the ocean is being constructed by building a huge cylindrical sea wall and pumping out all the water to create what is becoming less and less available these days: land. It’s a radical idea and a huge amount of engineering work, which is why the project has been secretly underway for the past five years.

You know from the first page that the project fails so I’m not giving away anything there. It’s the first in a long succession of secrets that are periodically revealed, not for any reason other than it propels the story. Anna’s been secretly married to the project’s financial backer for years. Matt abandoned his fiancée to join the project. Everybody has their secrets, which in one way or another contribute to the downfall.

Because, of course, there’s one thing about the world that can’t be changed: human nature. Even though some of the world’s brightest minds are recruited for the project, they bring with them all their prejudices, all their weaknesses. There are people determined to break up marriages, people determined to keep the ways of the old world, people determined that the new world cannot happen, no matter what.

In the end, it’s a morality tale. Except I’m not sure exactly what the moral is. The project spends $4.4 trillion trying to achieve Anna’s vision even while the populations of African nations starve and the Middle East is at war. Is it more important for rich people to feel like they’re doing something important in a historical context even if it means leaving the most vulnerable behind?

The style is flowery at times. A lot of characters speak and think in bumper sticker slogans. And it takes a long time for not a lot to happen. It’s not the kind of book with fast-paced plotting (so no comparisons with the books of his brother). But it is the kind of book that when you read the last page, you have to sit and think in quiet retrospection for a while.

In the thirteen years since I first read this book, there was one phrase that stuck with me because it was such a unique piece of description, pronouncing random beautiful people attending a party as having “star spangled smiles”. Sometimes it’s just the small moments that make all the difference for individual readers and that small moment did it for me. It was worth reading nearly four hundred pages just for that.

Stephen Reilly hasn’t published any other novels that I’m aware of. I’m left to wonder if he is the kind of writer who only has one novel in him. If that’s the case, Ninety East Ridge is a reasonable effort. But it won’t be for everyone. But I’ve read it twice now. And I’ll probably read it again in another thirteen years to see if my feeling have changed about it. If they haven’t now, they probably won’t. But it’s a book worth rereading.

*First published on Goodreads 16 September 2015

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