Young protagonist J has spent all of his days living alongside 23 other boys within the Turret, a large stone tower in an isolated wood. There, the so-called “Alphabet Boys” live under the stern but gentle care of D.A.D., the leader of an authoritarian group known as Parenthood. Now that he’s 12, though, J.’s ordered existence is showing some stress fractures. He begins seeing weird figures in the trees around the Turret. The Parenthood starts acting in odd, contradictory ways. The questions the boys are asked during their morning medical inspections become unusually pointed. D.A.D., normally a cheerful, benevolent sort of dictator, seems distracted, and can occasionally be heard crying out in his sleep.
Most troubling of all is the strange figure who steals into J’s window one night—she calls herself “K,” and claims to be one of the “Letter Girls,” an inhabitant of an identical Turret. She tries to sell J. on a plan to bring down Parenthood, throwing the Alphabet Boys into upheaval. As tension ramps up, an illicit book makes its way into the Turret, causing the Parenthood to tighten its grip, and throwing both children and adults into a life-or-death struggle.
The beauty of Inspection isn’t why things go wrong—though its mystery is a compelling one—but how. Malerman sets a time bomb ticking on the first page, as the Parenthood’s austere, sterile childrearing approach is contrasted with the roiling dysfunction of J’s internal monologue. As each chapter reveals more about the world—through cryptic “Burt Report” documents from the Parenthood Project’s in-house psychologist and chapters from the point-of-view of its beleaguered adults—the strange setting grows stranger still, and the tension builds as the Turret’s fall begins to seem inevitable.
Rather than pit his young cast against a tool of the system—a Nurse Ratched just doing her duty—Malerman turns the system itself into the enemy. D.A.D. is guilt-stricken over the atrocities he’s already committed in the name of the shadowy experiment he serves, and is terrified of what he might be asked to do next by the sinister, unseen “Burt,” the Turret’s absent head administrator. That D.A.D. is a sympathetic figure doesn’t make him or the Parenthood any less monstrous, but it does serve to cast the narrative in a more tragic light.
]ean3]Knowing that even the authority figures are afraid of sending people to “the Corner”—an ominously humming boiler room children enter but never leave—only raises the stakes as J starts to question the world around him, and D.A.D.’s grand speeches grow increasingly unhinged as his authority is challenged. It’s a testament to exactly how oppressive the atmosphere of the novel grows that a scene of someone writing on the wrong color notepad becomes fraught with peril.
While it’s a much more subdued vein of horror—and, indeed, a much less visceral brand of dystopian lit—than Bird Box, which became a much-memed phenomenon in the wake of the Netflix film adaptation, Inspection distinguishes itself as a tense, paranoid look into how a system can become every bit as much the villain as the people who maintain it. With an atmospheric slow build into unrelenting paranoia and dread, Malerman’s quietly terrifying latest is sure to linger in your memory long after the final violent images fade.
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