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It's a wild ride to get to the bottom of what everyone's hiding in 'A Better World'

Atria Books

Sarah Langan's A Better World is one of those novels that burrow under your skin a little deeper with each chapter until you feel profoundly unsettled but also incapable of turning away. A very sinister thriller with a dash of science-fiction and full of inscrutabilities, this novel about a mother trying to save her family from a dying world is as entreating and creepy as it is timely and humane.

The Farmer-Bowens are struggling. Russell, the family's father and Linda's husband has lost his job, and they're quickly running out of money and options. Linda, a pediatrician, can't get enough hours to keep them afloat. Their kids, twins Hip and Josie, have somewhat normal lives, but Linda knows they deserve better than the polluted, dying world New York has to offer them. That's why an invitation to visit Plymouth Valley, a walled-off company town with good a good school where food is free, there's no crime, and the air is clean is such a great opportunity. If Russell can get the job, Linda's career will suffer, but the whole family will live in a much better, cleaner place, and they won't have to worry about becoming homeless. When Russell is offered the job, the family jumps at the chance of a better life.

Plymouth Valley is as clean and organized as they said, but there's something right below the surface that feels off. The locals have some strange customs, the sum of which they call the Hollow, and they seem to hate outsiders. After the initial shock of their move wears off, the Farmer-Bowens begin to feel ostracized and struggle to adapt. No one talks to them or invites them to their events. The kids at school shun Hip and Josie. Russell's coworkers refuse to help him achieve his goals. Luckily, things change when Linda starts volunteering as a doctor for ActHollow, a small charity run by some of the most powerful and influential people in town. Finally, the family has the perfect life. Except they don't. Plymouth Valley is more than strange, and it's full of secrets and populated by folks with hidden agendas, bizarre birds, and maybe something monstruous hiding in the nuclear shelter tunnels that run under the entire town. The Farmer-Bowens have no clue what they're surrounded by, and the towns biggest and most ominous yearly event, the Plymouth Valley Winter Festival, is approaching. Linda might be asking too many questions, but maybe Plymouth Valley is very different than how it pretends to be.

A Better World is relentlessly creepy. Langan presents a controlled community where some things might seem off, but where the quality of life makes any weirdness worth it. Then, she quickly lifts the veil to reveal an increasingly odd, incredibly hostile, and extremely secretive world where people will do anything to get a "golden ticket" to stay in Plymouth Valley, there's a horrible hazing process for all newcomers, mental health is on shaky grounds, alcoholism runs rampant, and where almost every smile and flash of "prayer hands" is fake and hides some ulterior motive. The outside world is dystopia that's slowly killing all humans, but the perfect life of Plymouth Valley is just a facade that hides a community that's rotten at its core. And Langan doesn't just show a rotten world; she uses Plymouth Valley to explore wealth, the social effects of living in constant competition, and the evil sides of power and privilege.

The social critique is always there, but it never gets in the way of the action or interferes with Langan's storytelling, which here is full of strangeness that borders on horror. Also, there are plenty of elements that add eerie layers to this narrative. Two worth mentioning are the strange form of cancer some kids have in Plymouth Valley, which is called "aplastic anemia," and the "caladrius," strange flightless birds that were genetically engineered. The birds are all over the place, live next to the houses, and serve as occasional food or as sacrifice while also occasionally feeding on food made from their own. These two elements, along with some others, start out as relatively simple things that, while strange, are not disturbing. But that slowly changes until the mere presence of the big birds manages to convey a sense unease.

In A Better World, everyone is hiding something, and getting to the bottom of things is a very entertaining ride full of bumps, bad vibes, and hidden dangers. Certain books rely mostly on atmosphere to deliver their story — Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby and Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, for example — and Langan does that here. This is a story about survival where a woman is caught between two bad places with nowhere to go, but we want her to triumph. The darkness and critiques here make for a great read, but it's the humanity with which Langan portrays Linda that makes this dark thriller a must read.

Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on X, formerly Twitter, at @Gabino_Iglesias.

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