YA Weekend: Damselfly by Chandra Prasad
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Young Adult, Adventure
Series: Book 1
Publisher: Scholastic Press (March 27, 2018)
Length: 240 pages
Aptly described as a modern Lord of the Flies, Chandra Prasad’s Damselfly follows a group of prep school teens as they try to survive after the private jet carrying their fencing team crashes onto a deserted tropical island. The story is told through the eyes of Samantha Mishra, an unassuming and unassertive girl who often finds herself overshadowed by her more confident and socially extroverted classmates. Sam doesn’t always feel accepted by the others, and in fact, she only has one real friend, the eccentric but extraordinarily gifted Mel Sharpe, who is in many ways as much of an outcast as our protagonist.
After surviving the crash, Sam manages to locate Mel in the jungle, and the two of them quickly set out to gather up as many of the others who made it out alive. The group then decides to establish a base camp near a fresh source of water, and Mel, applying her vast knowledge and experience, begins directing everyone on how to gather food, construct a shelter, and provide protection while waiting for help. But then days go by with no sign of rescue. Worse, strange and unexplainable things start happening around the island, leading our survivors to think they might not be as alone as they first thought. As fears and pressures continue to mount, bitter rivalries and disagreements begin tearing the group apart. Before long, Sam finds herself caught in the middle of a dangerous power struggle, torn between loyalty to her best friend and a desire to fit in.
Not unlike William Golding’s classic that no doubt provided a bulk of the inspiration, Damselfly takes a look at survival and the effects of it on the basic state of human nature. Namely, when Sam and her classmates find themselves marooned on deserted island with no adults and no rules, a new form of tribalism eventually emerges to fill that void. Over time, the cutthroat dynamics at their elite high school also becomes adopted as the status quo on the island, with rich, beautiful, and popular Rithika heading up her own little circle of supporters, while Mel winds up being the de facto leader to a second group of outcasts consisting of Sam and all the others. In a way, this makes the novel’s perspective all the more cynical and disturbing, because it speaks to the inevitability of how people acting from fear will always end up creating the very reality they fear the most. Ultimately, this group of modern teens—privileged, well-educated, diverse, and made up of both boys and girls—still failed to prevent themselves from devolving into society of cruelty and savagery.
In fact, the modern setting somehow makes this situation even worse. Teens today face a myriad of issues including body image, peer and family pressure, relationships, and social acceptance. Damselfly explores many of these themes, further speculating on how they might play out in this deserted island scenario. Another factor that adds a layer to this situation is racism. I really appreciated how the author tackled this subject candidly and doesn’t gloss over the fact that it is a universal problem. Racial division is one of the first methods Rithika uses in an attempt to sway Sam to her side, using their shared Indian heritage to try and convince her that non-whites (the “Golds”) are superior to whites (the “Pales”). Our protagonist is obviously appalled by this, though later on, she also reflects upon how society has a way of fetishizing race and minorities, thinking back to her school admissions interview and how the administrators reacted with glee to her mixed-race heritage, seeing her only as a way to increase their diversity quotas. Rarely do you see topics like these addressed in such an open and unflinching manner, and I loved that about this book.
There’s also something deliciously creepy about the story. While it contains no overt fantasy element, plenty of bizarre occurrences take place to make you think there might be some weird shenanigans afoot, such as the large prints left in the sand by some unidentifiable bipedal creature, or the presence of birds on the island that are thought to be extinct. In fact, what bothered me the most about this book was the lack of answers, and I was also extremely unhappy with the ending, which left things hanging on a pretty big and annoying cliffhanger.
That said though, I wouldn’t hesitate to read the sequel if given the opportunity. I like all the groundwork that has been established here, and I’m enjoying the characters a lot. There’s so much more room for Sam to grow, and I’m curious to see how she and Mel will fare on the next stage of their journey and what that would mean for their war with Rithika. Despite the frustrating ending, I also can’t deny that I really, really, desperately want to find out what happens next. I’m crossing my fingers that the next book will bring some clarity and resolutions to all the mystery.