The First Book of Calamity Leek by Paula Lichtarowicz

The First Book of Calamity LeekThe First Book of Calamity Leek

I’ve been meaning to read Calamity Leek for months; the paperback release looming gave me the nudge I needed. The hardback, cruelly neglected on my bedside table, is a beauty. It’s a gorgeous chunky thing with illustrations that continue inside the front and back covers. There’s a wonderful sense of both life and decay to them. The paperback uses the same illustrator’s work, that of Talya Baldwin. I checked out her website and her work is amazing.
Calamity Leek narrates the book from her hospital bed, setting out how she ended up there. She starts with the night her sister Truly Polperro well and truly broke the rules, which as it turned out was the start of all the trouble. Truly’s inquisitive nature means she just has to see over the Wall of Safekeeping. The transgression has far-reaching consequences for all the sisters, who until now had been safe and protected in the Garden. Calamity cannot understand why anyone would want to break the rules so clearly laid out in the Appendix, their guidebook. But, the few words that Truly manages to breathe into the ear of Annie St. Albans sparks more questions than the Appendix has answers for.
Calamity is thoroughly indoctrinated by the Appendix. For her the words written within it are the truth. Aunty is their protector and mentor, training them to become warriors against the demonmales in the Outside. The creation story explaining how awful they are and why they must be destroyed is one of my twisted highlights of the book. Aunty’s tyranny as she teaches the girls through a combination of cheery show-tunes and her Stick is another one.
The snatches of song sung by Aunty and the girls, and featured on the instructional Ophelia Swindon showreel, are all from popular musicals. The type of the community the girls are living in is not immediately clear, and initially I wondered if these songs were the remnants of popular culture still available in a post-disaster world. Calamity’s situation is so alien I couldn’t resolve it into something I understood at first. One of the things I most enjoyed about the book was how that world slowly shifted into focus. Calamity relates what she overhears and sees and we get to read between the lines.
That something is very wrong inside the Garden is clear. Aunty, with her ravaged face and reliance on ‘medicine’ swigged from a bottle, is manipulative and scary. She’s an angel compared to the Mother though, whizzing around barking orders from behind her dark glasses. So many questions about the relationship between the two women popped into my mind, along with a multitude of others about the girls. Mostly I was gratified with answers. However, a couple of things have been bothering me. The next paragraph is SPOILERY so skip it if you prefer.
The most pressing thing for me is as follows. During the latter part of the story it transpires that Mother, in the real world, is known to take in orphans. I couldn’t reconcile this with the conditions in which the girls lived – they don’t even have shoes – and the fact that children had been going missing for years. Surely someone would have checked on them? This bothers me because from what we get to know of the outside world, it is the normal everyday one that we inhabit.
Overall I thought Calamity Leek was a very interesting read. I loved the skewed world Paula Lichtarowicz has created. The darkness of the situation contrasts so well with the beauty of the surroundings. The Garden is a place full of glorious roses, an apt choice of bloom, sweet smelling and exquisite to look at but watch out for the thorns. Calamity is the poster girl for blind devotion and indoctrination; I pitied her and willed her to use her brain to think instead of memorise. Only once did I become hopelessly exasperated with her. It wasn’t until I got to the very end of the book, and was utterly chilled by it, that I began to think even more about the rose metaphor. Before I had just been thinking about the girls as roses. Now, I think that the author has very cleverly concealed a most disturbing tale under the endearingly naïve voice of Calamity. Her matter of fact tone almost lulled me into overlooking the damage done to these girls. Those last few sentences brought me right back to my senses.
I couldn’t resist looking up some of the roses grown in the Garden to see what sort they were. White roses for purity or mourning? There’s so much plant lore I’m not sure what, if anything, the varieties symbolise. Any ideas, please let me know. From top left: Silver Anniversary, Iceberg, Boules de Neige
The images can be accessed on their original websites (, & by clicking on the names, where you can buy them to grow in your very own Garden!

The First Book of Calamity Leek has just come out in paperback from Hutchinson, it’s also available as an eBook. My copy was plucked from my own shelves.

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