Sarah Hopkins latest book The Subjects delves into the murky world of big pharma and more particularly, the use of drugs to control and modify the behaviour of young offenders. Except that, for most of its length, it is not directly about this at all. It is only very late in the piece that the big picture is revealed not only to the protagonist but to the reader. Which makes The Subjects a slightly frustrating experience.
Daniel is a young drug dealer who has been caught and is on trial. But instead of going to jail he is diverted to a new “facility” somewhere in the Australian countryside. The facility is ultramodern and filled with young people like himself. While he is told that he can leave at any time, Daniel feels welcome and slowly finds himself drawn into life at the facility. This life includes strange daily lessons which require the students to wear electronic headbands and regular therapy sessions with the doctor who runs the facility. Over all of this hangs a sense of foreboding as an older Daniel narrates and intersperses some of his recollections with evidence from a formal inquiry into the work of the centre.
Despite the feeling that things are going to go bad, Daniel’s life in the facility is an improvement of his life before – living with his mother and her string of increasingly abusive boyfriends. He makes a strong group of friends, one of whom he becomes infatuated with. And occasional statements about life after show that he went on to become reasonably successful. But despite this, there are plenty of secrets and trauma associated with the place and the fact that the residents there are guinea pigs for something to do with behaviour modification even if they can’t see what it is themselves.
The Subjects is an interesting look at alternative forms of therapy and incarceration. Hopkins has things to say in the debate around the value of medicating behaviour and makes a strong case for one side of that debate. But it takes way too long for this argument to come into focus. In fact it is only in the last few pages that the full story comes to light. And nothing about the revelations is quite as traumatic as the start of the journey seemed to imply. In fact, just the opposite, making Daniel’s journey a satisfying one on one level but frustrating on another.