The Boundless Sublime by Lili Wilkinson (Allen & Unwin, 2016) is harrowing, not quite the sweetness and light of her previous books. Lili Wilkinson used to be my go-to for fluffy romance, motherhood has changed her.

Ruby is grieving the sudden death of her brother and drifts aimlessly through a fog of guilt. Her family is just as broken and her friends don’t understand her pain. Meeting Fox, under the literal piercing light of the afternoon sun, seems to solve all Ruby’s woes. Ruby confuses her lust for love, helped along by Fox’s naive views on love. As their intense friendship grows, Ruby is pulled into Fox’s strange family and unusual beliefs.

“Cooking realigns the molecular structure of food.”

Salty food, sulphurous water, so many red flags that Ruby is getting into a bad situation. And that’s before the beatings, starvation and isolation. Ideas around the toxicity of the modern world and healthy eating are core beliefs of the Institute. Lots of raw vegetables and vitamins start out sounding like a good idea, but in extremis leads to orthorexia – when healthy eating becomes an eating disorder.

The world building of the cult is very clever. Scientific jargon, twisted to Zosimon’s whims, is the basis of many of the Institute’s ideas. I had to google elutriate. The word is used in Chemistry and comes from the Latin “elutriat – washed out.” Exactly what the cult strives toward, washing out the toxins from the outside world.

Chemistry: Separate (lighter and heavier particles in a mixture) by suspension in an upward flow of liquid or gas
Oxford English Dictionary

Also, washing brains of all rational thought. I cringed when Ruby said this doesn’t feel like brainwashing. Brainwashing works so well because it never feels like brainwashing.

“I couldn’t imagine going back to the person I’d once been. She didn’t exist anymore. She’d been erased, extinguished during my long days incarcerated in the tiny locked room.”

This is the crux of The Boundless Sublime. How can an intelligent, articulate 17 year old fall for a pack of lies? A few Goodreads reviewers had difficulty suspending disbelief in this regard. Lili Wilkinson’s webseries “Lets Talk About Sects” details her research into cults. Many of the nastiest aspects of the Institute come from real life cults where abuse, torture and murder are used to control members. My life-long interest in true crime introduced me to many of these cults and as I read The Boundless Sublime I noticed the real world similarities.

Cults feed off vulnerability – people with a better state of mind don’t fall for the tricks. Religion is the socially acceptable variation on this, and encompasses just as many weird beliefs – who needs an earthly body when there’s resurrection?

“There was nothing you could do to change the inside, especially when the inside of a person was blank, dark and hollow”

Ruby’s grief and a charismatic leader are all it takes. She starts out asking questions but slowly loses all sense of self and succumbs to Zosimon’s groupthink. Little realising what she found to replace the emptiness of her grief was so much worse.

Zosimon’s stripping of people’s names is another way to remove his followers’ sense of self and make them his. He chooses their new name and owns every aspect of their new life. What he does to the Monkeys is an insidious extention of this.

“We didn’t exist before Daddy. Daddy made us into people.”

When Fox said that my heart broke.

“I wasn’t like the people I’d read about online. I wasn’t born into the Institute. I should have known better. I chose to go there. I chose to stay.”

In hindsight Ruby knows she shouldn’t have fallen for Zosimon’s tricks, but every cult leader is expert in the art of manipulation. At one point he even admits to Ruby that “no questions” makes things easier.

“They all say they chose it. They all believe it. Until they don’t, and by then it’s too late.”

Ruby reaches this point-of-no-return more than once and I regularly yelled at her to get out now, Do Not Pass Go, do not collect $200. But her fragile self worth means every time she can’t extricate herself. And torture is very effective at stopping rational thought.

“It all seemed so clear, in the dank, dark basement. The Institute wasn’t the answer to the meaning of life. The Institute was a cult. Zosimon was the typical charismatic leader – compelling, mysterious, appealing. And totally full of shit.”

I read The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes earlier in the year. What is it about cults and losing appendages?? Minnow was introduced to her cult by her parents when she was a child and has known little else. Her story centred more on the aftermath of the breakup of her cult. Ruby’s story had much less after her escape, but as much emotional trauma while her heartache continued.

“What did I want to do? I wanted to go back. I wanted schedules and orders and to be assigned to a working group. I wanted to be told what to do.
I wanted to burn the Institute to the ground.”

The final denouement was quite a shock (as opposed to what I thought was the denouement). A bit too far-fetched and sensational for my liking. I guess this is where my own difficulty suspending disbelief came in.

“I’d gone looking for answers, but all I’d found were more questions.”

I liked Lili Wilkinson’s comments on books and reading. The dangers of reading too many books and getting confused about what’s real and what’s not – a favourite pastime of mine!

“The Wasteland was an empty car park behind a long abandoned pub. Minah liked it because she said it reminded her of the permanence of concrete in stark contrast to the entropy of humanity. Harrison had dubbed it the Wasteland after the TS Eliot poem, because it was full of disillusionment and despair.”

The cover design by Astred Hicks is stark and perfect for the story. The bare light bulb hanging in her room at the Institute. Promising illumination of the darkness in Ruby’s life, but in reality offering nothing but a harsh glare. Astred Hicks’ skills in stunning typography complete the look.

The Boundless Sublime