Premee Mohamed’s And What Can We Offer You Tonight is a tightly written novella about a story of rebellion from oppression focused on the inner struggle from the invisible chains of psychic servitude.
And What Can We Offer You Tonight, narrated by Jewel, a courtesan at the high-end House of Bicchieri, begins with one of the House’s workers coming back from the dead. Winfield (Win) revives and recovers her memory slowly but soon resolves to carry out revenge on the monster who killed her.
The House of Bicchieri is a strange and false outpost of comfort and luxury in the midst of a ruined, flooded city where the poor scrape by and the rich retreat to their well-guarded suburban estates. From the age of 10, children of the poor are subject to a “cull” and many are forced into prostitution, with the “lucky” few picked up by the owners of the House, a couple who go by mineral names (Ms. Serpentine and Mr. Jade). In this future city, if you lack a wristband identifying you as a worker of some value, your life is literally worthless, and you can disappear without a trace.
The owners enforce a regime of strict compliance with House rules which always put the clients first (and only) even when their tastes run to beating, mutilation and murder. Yet they also insist on a tone of benign helpfulness. Cheerfulness and beautiful clothes accompany their constant drumbeat of praise and reminders of how lucky the workers are to be saved from poverty and death in the hopeless city.
Since Winfield is now dead and beyond the brutal punishments the House can inflict, she decides to revenge herself and friends by using her new powers to come and go as she pleases. The story of her revenge is one element of the plot of this story, but the other is even more interesting. It is the story of Jewel’s inner liberation.
While Win insists on bringing her along on her exploits, Jewel, very much alive, is the one who must face consequences if she breaks the House routine, especially if she disappoints clients. She has to struggle with her true feelings of hate for her oppressors and longing to rebel with the fear of losing everything in her current life. It’s a fear based on a ten-year drumbeat of hearing the same gospel pounded into her with honeyed words of concern and care when the owners’ only real care is for the clients and the money they bring in.
The punishments for any infraction of House rules are swift and brutal, at first consisting of charging vast amounts against earnings that force the inmates to borrow just to eat. They go as far as expulsion back into the ruined city and poverty from which they were taken. Despite all the fake concern for the welfare of the workers, the clients always come first even when they mutilate and murder them.
Mohamed is a brilliant writer who packs a complex story into sixteen short chapters. There is not a word wasted, yet the details of the strange world of this nameless city, even when they fly by in the midst of action, are unforgettable.
“…and the sky is blueblack as a bruise and the water is the same and between them, very often, is a single knife-thin slice of gold sun more beautiful than any metal and any gem at House of Bicchieri and more beautiful than any of us and more beautiful than any of our clients.”And What Can We Offer You Tonight, Kindle edition, Location 86
“The city is like the canals which keep it alive: filled with garbage and killers, a terrible silent deadly striving beneath the surface, regularly dredged, its leavings crushed and processed for value, then discarded.”And What Can We Offer You Tonight, Kindle edition, Location 154
The story builds to an exciting conclusion, and even though I was left wanting to know more about these intriguing characters, that’s a good feeling to have. There’s a lot of richness in a small space in this remarkable novella.