I struggle with where to begin with talking about The Only Ones by Carola Dibbel. It isn’t so much because I don’t know what to say, but because there is so much to talk about. The future is marred by terrible pandemic flus. The narrator is a distinctive voice and force of nature. The relationship between mother and child – or mother and clone – is excellently drawn. What else is there to say?
A kind of innocence wraps around Inez — or I., as she is called. At the beginning of the novel, she has already been through everything that catastrophes can bring to a life. She was orphaned by plagues, raised in a basement apartment by a woman who eventually dies in a fire. Inez has been selling genetic material and eggs – teeth, blood, anything – to make a living. She has a third grade education, since plagues shut down the schools. She has survived. Her single greatest trait is that she seems to be immune from all the diseases of the world. And, along with this, her greatest trait to readers is that she remains an innocent, hopeful, interested in the future, and always trying her best. She never gives up, or loses hope, or surrenders to any darkness. It is as if the very genetic hardiness that made her immune to the plagues wrapped around her soul, too, to make her immune to all hardships.
She works with rogue geneticists in New Jersey to harvest and clone her genetic material. They sell it on the black market. The first time they do it, in an elaborate cloning operation that no one is completely sure will work, their customer is upset that the clones will have no piece of her genetic material or mitochondria or anything. It will just be a clone of Inez. For a while, she seems to get over this, though, knowing that these daughters will not die in the plagues – cannot die. Her genetics make her immune to viruses and bacteria. Then, the unthinkable happens: The customer backs out at the last minute, when one of the children is “born” from a tank, the only one to survive the first process. In her stipulated desire, the customer insists that Inez takes the child instead of the rogue geneticists. The lab men would only raise the child to sell her genetic material, in her mind. Inez took the child to the wastelands of New York, where the diseases had emptied out the apartments and avenues. She raised her, in this limited and limiting world, and tries to do a good job. Again, Inez had a third grade education, and came up through the specter of disease, physical and sexual abuse, and the death of everyone she knew. She never tells her daughter anything about herself, her past, or even the way her daughter was created, against the law in a rogue genetics lab in New Jersey.