Wool by Hugh Howey

A review of the post-apocalyptic science fiction novel Wool by Hugh Howey.

Wool is a story of a future community who live underground in a buried silo. They are meant to believe that God built the Silo, but most take that idea with a pinch of salt, and many secretly question their existence of rules and cramped living conditions in such a limited world. But the inhabitants of the silo can only express their questions and theories secretly, usually only with their spouses, because the public knowledge of anyone questioning the silo system would result in punishment by death.


Wool by Hugh Howey

It was this perilous, pessimistic tag line that first caught my attention when I was searching for my next read in a second hand book store. Being that I am in the speculated quarter of Young Adult fiction readers that are actually adults, the characters I usually read about are in their mid-teens. However, with Wool I found myself gripped to the story of a female protagonist in her mid-thirties, and of all the other third-person character perspectives through-out the book, none of which were younger than twenty years of age.

The silo has 144 floors in total, with different occupations inhabiting each section of levels. There is an obvious segregation in the community, with the more affluent residents being towards the upper silo, and the underestimated menial labour workforce residing in the ‘down deep’. Large computer screens resembling windows run around the walls of the top floor, displaying a live view of the brown contaminated world outside, a constant reminder to the people of why they should be thankful to live safely inside the silo. But the impact of living in such a confined, unnatural place, even though they are unaware that there was ever a liveable world outside, grows too much for some of the residents. Every few years someone seemingly goes mad and demands to be let outside; a crime that is punishable by ‘cleaning’—where the convicted criminal must clean the screens of the lenses outside to allow for a clearer view of the poisoned world, before the toxic air inevitable kills them.

But there is one question everyone wants to understand but cannot ask for fear: why is it everyone sentenced to ‘cleaning’ swears they won’t clean the lenses, and yet they always do.

Holston is the first character the story follows, starting at the very first line of the book.

The children were playing while Holston climbed to his death.

Wool by Hugh Howey

With an opening line like that, how could I not have continue reading?

Holston’s wife was put to cleaning three years before the book is set. She managed to uncover hidden information about the silo’s past, and what she found lit a fire of curiosity so bright it made her desperate to leave. If Holston, the current silo sheriff, looks hard enough across the distant dead hills on the monitor windows he can find the lump he knows is his dead wife. And he is now ready to make the same shocking request to leave the silo and be put to cleaning.

Wool not only switches between characters in a third-person perspective, but it also occasionally jumps in time, from past to present, and it does this flawlessly. Quite unusually, we don’t meet the protagonist of the story, Juliette, until twelve chapters in, but all the other characters we meet first, and the information we discover from each, is integral for setting us up for Juliette’s dynamic part of the story.

I found Wool to be an incredible read; not only did it delight me in how the discoveries made by each character slotted into place to answer questions and create a much larger picture, but it ticks many of the boxes I look for in my usual Young Adult reads. Wool is a story of courage and curiosity, of love, lust and jealousy, deceit, secrets and betrayal, trust and sacrifice. The fast pace and vividly horrific imagery of Wool are, for me, enough to rival any young adult novel.

The paperback version of Wool was released with the quote “Spoken about in the same breath as The Hunger Games” from the Independent on Sunday, which suggests to me the publishers may have been angling towards the 21-25% of Young Adult fiction readers that are actually adults.

I would liken the story of Wool to the middle grade novel The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau. The inhabitants of the underground city of Ember have been told the world above is dark and uninhabitable, and that the ‘builders’ who built their city will inevitably return and save them before their failing generator brakes completely. It’s the same wool pulled over their eyes, the same subconscious itch in the characters that makes them question if what they are being told to firmly believe is actually true.

Also, when I watched the three part TV series Ascension, I couldn’t help but notice the countless similarities of the inhabitants of the spaceship and the inhabitants of the silo. To mention just a few would be the cylinder layout of the building, the lottery for children, the whispers of the riots generations before, the segregation of classes through levels, and the negative effects of long-term living in such a cramped and limited world.

Wool is a story of curiosity, of questioning what we’ve been given in life and wondering if there may be more to it than meets the eye. It exposes our human nature to explore and push boundaries. For me personally, I found this story also highlights how lucky we all are to have sunlight, pure air, and the freedom to procreate at our own choosing, so why must there be so much conflict and friction? Why can’t we, as inhabitants of a beautiful and vast planet, simply enjoy the life we have been given?

Rebecca Delphine is a Young Adult author from Thanet.

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