Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, dystopian, Fiction, Joanne Ramos, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘The Farm’ by Joanne Ramos

Fiction – Kindle edition; Bloomsbury; 336 pages; 2019.

I had no intention of reading Joanne Ramos’s debut novel The Farm, but then I joined a book group here in Fremantle, my new adopted city, and this was their June selection. We had a mighty fine discussion about it on Saturday.

Admittedly, with so much else going on in my life — flat hunting, job hunting, buying furniture, opening a bank account, sorting out an Australian mobile number and so on — my mind has felt too overloaded to read lately. I simply haven’t had the focus and within about 50 pages of this book I considered abandoning it. But, of course, that would mean not being able to go to the book group and, because I was keen to meet some bookish locals, I persevered. The effort was worth it.

The Farm is a dystopian story that’s set just a little in the future. It’s about a powerful American company that has outsourced pregnancy by offering women too busy, too infertile or too old to have children the chance to buy a baby via a surrogate. The surrogates, known as Hosts, are hand-picked and then housed in a secure facility — Golden Oaks, aka “the farm” — where they receive the very best medical attention, albeit with strict limits on their personal freedom and little to no contact with the outside world.

Upon safe delivery of a baby to their Client (who is usually anonymous), the Host receives a substantial sum of money. Consequently, most of the Hosts come from poor ethnic minority backgrounds and the majority are immigrants, mainly from the Philippines.

A female-centric story

The entire story is seen through the eyes of women (indeed, men are barely mentioned in this book) and each of the four main characters takes it in turn, in alternate chapters, to tell their version of events. These are:

  • Jane, the young Filipino woman seeking a better life by becoming a Host;
  • Ate, a 67-year-old Filipino woman working as a nanny to support her family, including a disabled son back home, who is secretly choosing women and putting them forward as potential Hosts;
  • Mae, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, who is the powerful and driven executive from the company that runs Golden Oaks; and
  • Reagan, an intelligent white American graduate, who’s decided to become a Host to make enough money to be independent from her father.

Through these wildly different characters Ramos is able to explore different perspectives on surrogacy (though we don’t hear the Client’s perspective except through the lens of the company representing them), babies and motherhood.

In this dystopian world she gives us a glimpse of what life would be like if babies became commodities and poor women were reduced to renting out their wombs for profit. She shows how economic disparity between the haves and the have-nots not only puts pressure on poor women to do things they would otherwise not need to do but gives rich women the false illusion that money can buy them happiness. And she shines an important spotlight on the immigrant underclass who are often trapped by circumstances beyond their control.

As one member of my book group said, The Farm is like a reimagining of  Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in a capitalistic free market economy. I think that summation is pretty good.

Slow start but becomes a page turner

Style-wise the prose is relatively “flat” but the story moves along at a clip — once you get past the first 60 or so pages — and becomes something of a page turner.

It’s suspenseful and thought-provoking, but it’s also got a vein of dark humour running throughout it. Sadly, I thought the ending a bit weak, particularly as you don’t necessarily find out what happens to all the characters.

But as a novel of ideas — and of talking points for book groups! — this is a superb piece of general fiction with lots to say about race, class and inequality.

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, dystopian, Fiction, literary fiction, Liz Jensen, London, Publisher, science fiction, Setting

‘The Uninvited’ by Liz Jensen


The-Uninvited

Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury; 320 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

The older I get and the more books I read, the more difficult it appears to be to find truly original novels, because I find so much fiction is just a rehash of stories I’ve read before. But from the opening page of Liz Jensen’s latest novel, The Uninvited, I knew I was about to embark on a reading adventure that would have no parallel. Indeed, it is quite unlike anything I’ve ever read before.

A genre-busting novel

The Uninvited is not an easy book to classify, because it’s a heady mix of all kinds of genres, including dystopian science fiction, crime, horror and psychological thriller. Throw in a main character who has Asperger’s syndrome, plus plenty of deadpan humour, and you begin to see why it defies categorisation.

But the one element that really stands out — for me, anyway — is just the spine-tingling creepiness of it all. I’m not sure how Jensen does it, because her writing style is neat and restrained, but the subject matter of this book got under my skin and quietly horrified me, perhaps because it felt so believable. On more than one occasion it reminded me of the very best of John Wyndham’s novels, notably the The Midwich Cuckoos (which has only made me want to go back and reread all his wonderful work), and Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child.

If you are familiar with the latter two references, you might have already guessed that this a novel about children who do terrible deeds. From the book’s shocking prologue — a seven-year-old girl kills her grandmother by putting a nail gun to her neck and firing three times — to the concluding chapters, Jensen catalogues a series of violent incidents, including murder, committed by youngsters around the world.

At the same time, the narrative chronicles a string of incidents involving corporate sabotage in which the adult offender claims to have become possessed by something which made them carry out these usually deadly crimes. But are all these disparate events linked and, if so, why are they happening?

An anthropologist turned detective

Step in anthropologist Hesketh Lock, the narrator of the story, who is employed by an international firm that investigates corporate fraud. Hesketh, who has Asperger’s syndrome, has an uncanny ability to spot human behaviour patterns and, because he in incapable of lying, is always focused on getting to the truth of a matter, which makes him the perfect investigator. (He also has a penchant for languages, the brand names of colours in paint catalogues, origami, Venn diagrams, folk tales and belief systems.)

Over time Hesketh has learnt to mimic human emotions — “But apparently I still lack some of the ‘normal social graces'” — and has developed a close and touching relationship with seven-year-old Freddy, whom he regards as his step-son, despite the fact that he is no longer involved with Freddy’s mother. It is only when Freddy’s behavior becomes more violent and “odd” that Hesketh begins to understand how the pieces of the jigsaw might be falling together. What he discovers is not only deeply disturbing, it threatens the existence of the entire human race…

There’s no doubt that The Uninvited gets my vote for the most original paperback published this year — so far. It’s thought-provoking, unsettling and creepy. It’s a genuine page-turner, too, the kind of novel that is unforgettable in all kinds of ways. And if it’s any indication of Jensen’s usual standard, I’m delighted to discover she has a hefty back catalogue for me to explore.

Author, Book review, Children/YA, dystopian, England, Fiction, Louise Lawrence, Publisher, Red Fox, science fiction, Setting

‘Children of the Dust’ by Louise Lawrence

Children-of-the-dust

Fiction – paperback; Red Fox; 174 pages; 2002.

When Louise Lawrence’s young adult novel Children of the Dust was first published in 1985 I would have been its target audience. During my teenage years nuclear Armageddon was just around the corner — and even though I grew up in Australia, far from the machinations of the Cold War, we were still mired in the debate over French nuclear testing in the South Pacific.

I’m glad I didn’t read Lawrence’s novel at the time though — it would have fed my paranoia and teenage anxiety and upset me greatly.

A tale of the apocalypse

The story is set in England and is about as apocalyptic as they come. It’s divided into three parts — titled Sarah, Ophelia and Simon — and spans three generations over half a century. (Sarah and Ophelia are half-sisters who never meet, and Simon is Ophelia’s grandson.)

When the book opens the world has just erupted into nuclear war and bombs have been dropped on Hamburg and Leningrad. In the UK, Bristol Radio reports that London, Cardiff, Cheltenham and Gloucester have been bombed. Birmingham is next in line.

Sarah, sent home from school, takes cover in the kitchen of her Cotswolds home with her step-mother, Veronica, and her two half-siblings, Catherine and William. Her father, a lecturer at Bristol University, doesn’t have time to drive home, so it’s assumed he never survives the radioactive fallout.

A book of three parts

This first part of the book is hugely distressing as the family shelter in their tightly sealed kitchen, living on canned goods and watching the world outside turn grey and eerie as they await their sure deaths from radiation sickness.

The second part is more upbeat: it’s been 20 years since the war and life has somehow lingered on, albeit in a government bunker in the Bristol-Bath catchment area, where Sarah’s dad, Bill, has been living all this time, unaware of his family’s fate.

And by the third part, another 30 or so years down the line, the human race is mutating into a new species of simian-like albino beings with supernatural powers — they can communicate by telepathy, for instance, and fly planes using psycho-kinetic energy. It is here that Sarah’s grandnephew, Simon, makes contact with some of the creatures, whom he struggles to trust.

Thought-provoking issues

The book is thought-provoking and throws up some interesting issues about society, politics and the ways in which human behaviour and biology dictates who survives and who does not. I’m not sure it’s scientifically correct though — how, for instance, would albinos be better able to cope with a depleted ozone layer than a normal white-skinned person? Surely the lack of pigment in their skin would subject them to terrible sunburn?

That minor quibble aside, I found the book an engaging, albeit gloomy, read. The characters are a bit two-dimensional, but the dilemmas they find themselves in seem believable and anxiety-inducing. There was never a point where I thought, this is ridiculous.

There are some agendas at play, however. There’s a slightly religious undercurrent running throughout the story — which I did my best to ignore — but overall it seems to project a positive message: that if human beings opened their minds, were less prejudiced and less selfish, the world would be a better, more peaceful, place. My 15-year-old self would have loved that.

Australia, Author, Book review, dystopian, Fiction, Nevil Shute, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘On the Beach’ by Nevil Shute

On-The-Beach

Fiction – paperback; Vintage Classics; 320 pages; 2009.

As a teenager in the 1980s, I grew up in the shadow of the Cold War nuclear arms race. At the time there was a very real fear that Armageddon was just around the corner. It frightened me so much I still remember writing English essays about nuclear war and angst-filled poetry about world peace.

Australia may have seemed a long way away from the two main adversaries, the USA and Soviet Union, but anxiety about the nuclear threat was very real at that point in time.

I still remember the terrifying image, depicting Sydney Harbour after a nuclear strike, on the front cover of Red Sails in the Sunset, an album by Australian rock band Midnight Oil. I bought it upon release in 1984 and remember feeling incredibly impassioned by the lyrics, which were filled with political messages about the nuclear threat we all faced. (The band’s singer, Peter Garrett, even went on to stand for the Nuclear Disarmament Party although he didn’t get voted in.)

Not long afterwards, in 1985, the McClelland Royal Commission investigated secret British nuclear tests on Australian soil, including Maralinga, in the 1950s. I still remember the veterans who had been subject to the blasts being interviewed on TV news broadcasts. This short film (below) sheds further light on what happened.


Meanwhile a Greenpeace campaign was in full swing to protest against French military testing of nuclear weapons on Mururoa Atoll in the South Pacific. The protest turned nasty when the French Foreign Intelligence Services sunk Greenpeace’s flagship, The Rainbow Warrior, in the port of Auckland in July, 1985.

It was about this time that I read Nevil Shute’s nuclear holocaust novel On the Beach. I was 15 or 16 and remember being totally gripped by the story. It all seemed unbearably sad, totally realistic and did absolutely nothing to dispel my fear of Armageddon being just around the corner!

Twenty-five years later, would it live up to my memory of it?

Before I answer that, let me explain the story.

It is 1963. The entire population of the Northern Hemisphere has been wiped out by nuclear war and now the radioactive cloud is drifting slowly south, killing everyone in its wake. As the most southerly city on the Australian mainland, Melbourne is the last bastion for human habitation. And it is here that the American Navy has retreated. When a faint morse code signal is detected coming from the United States, a submarine is dispatched to make contact…

The novel is largely set in the naval dockyards of Williamstown (which, ironically, is the Melbourne suburb of my birth) and the fictional Falmouth (which, I suspect is a town on the Mornington Peninsula), although a great part of the action is set on a nuclear-powered submarine. However, I use the term “action” quite lightly, because not a great deal happens in the book.

Essentially, everyone knows that death is looming large but instead of going completely crazy about the situation, all the characters carry on their day-to-day lives as if everything is hunky dory. In Shute’s world it’s clear that civilisation is robust and there’ll be no succumbing to riots or looting or anything immoral. Indeed, there might only be two weeks to live but if you want to go and buy a lawn mower, you can simply pop into the local hardware store and you’ll receive the usual friendly customer service to which you’ve become accustomed. I suspect this business-as-usual approach is merely a reflection of the times in which it was written (On the Beach was first published in 1957), but it seems quite odd and dated today.

In fact, there’s a lot about this novel that appears ludicrous when viewed with modern eyes, and I have to admit that there were times I thought the characters behaved so ridiculously or said unbelievably silly things that I wanted to throw the book across the room. After awhile I began to view the entire novel as a comedy, and while there’s certainly a lot of gallows humour in it, I’m not sure that was Shute’s intention.

Peter looked at the price tag, picked up the mower, and went to find the assistant. “I’ll take this one,” he said.
“Okay,” said the man. “Good little mower that.” He grinned sardonically. “Last you a lifetime.”

For the most part I found the characterisation poor — the male characters in particular are almost indistinguishable from one another — but there was one shining light in the form of Moira Davidson, a 20-something single woman, who has a penchant for drinking vast quantities of brandy and flirting with men. She strikes up a platonic friendship with Dwight Towers, the captain of the US Scorpion, around which most of the story hinges.

Mary, the wife of Peter Holmes (the central character), is also well-drawn, in the sense that her sheer naivety makes her stand-out from the rest of the cast.

But strangely for a book about the death of the human race, there’s very little emotion aside from one touching scene in which Mary and Peter discuss how to deal with their young baby, Jennifer, when the radiation sickness strikes.

Shute also tends to write in a fairly stilted manner, using phrases that seem ridiculous — “The breakfast came upon the table” — and referring to characters by their nationality or occupation — “The Australian”, “The scientist”, “The Commander” — which grate with constant repetition.

While On the Beach is an entertaining, dare I say it, fascinating read, its purpose is not so much literary but cultural, revealing as it does a 1950s mindset coming to terms with the end of the world. I suspect this is one of those novels you love first time round, but a second reading only serves to reveal its weaknesses and Shute’s writerly quirks.

Author, Book review, dystopian, Fiction, Publisher, short stories, Sleepers Publishing, Steven Amsterdam

‘Things We Didn’t See Coming’ by Steven Amsterdam

ThingsWeDidntSeeComing

Fiction – paperback; Sleepers Publishing; 174 pages; 2009.

Serendipity can work in strange and unusual ways. Having just read H.M. Brown’s dystopian Red Queen, which is set in Australia, I picked up Steven Amsterdam’s award-winning Things We Didn’t See Coming to find it, too, is dystopian fiction.

Amsterdam is a Melbourne-based writer, although the story does not appear to be set in Australia. While the location is never specified, it “feels” North American. This isn’t particularly surprising given that Amsterdam, according to his website, was “born and raised by lifelong New Yorkers on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in a rent-controlled apartment”.

What is surprising is that this collection of short stories, set in an apocalyptic world, works so brilliantly. While each of the nine stories can be read as stand alone pieces of fiction, taken as a whole they build into a rather wonderful narrative that spans some 30 years and sees the main character, a petty thief, survive the wrath of the millennium bug (remember that?), fire, flood and desperate food shortages, among other disasters.

And despite the dark, sometimes depressing, worlds presented here, the books feels wonderfully alive and fresh and new. This isn’t so much about people dying (although clearly lots of people do die when there’s been an apocalypse), but about the canny, sometimes immoral, methods the survivors adopt to forge on in a world wracked by environmental changes, economic collapse and societal breakdown. It has the potential to be a cold, brutal and violent book, but instead it’s a heady mix of tenderness, sexiness, hopefulness and wonder.

Amsterdam is a talented story-teller, with a sharp eye for detail and a canny ear for dialogue. But it’s his tremendous imagination that makes this book work. Quick thumbnail portraits take us into new and forbidding territory, but he never over-explains, never wastes words on a complicated back story, just thrusts us right into the action from the word go. Here’s an example, taken from the second story in the collection, Dry Land, which immediately conveys a world in which it never stops raining:

I was never trained to travel in these long downpours and I’m tired of the damp. But I’ve got a lot of autonomy. I’m supposed to cover the low areas, look for the shaky light of candles burning in dark houses and evacuate whoever’s still thinking the sky’s about to clear. Land Management sends me in to protect them from starvation and flooding. Also, my job is to make sure no one gets hurt when the animals on the land nearby finally get so desperate that they stampede through. There’s some water-logged cattle one county away that are trapped by a forest and probably close to busting out. They’ll either die or find the strength to cross the highway and come through here. I’m clearing people so the animals can push through the suburbs and muddy farms to find higher ground.

While there’s no doubt that Amsterdam has a unique voice, there are shades of Chuck Palahniuk here, with a little dash of Stephen King and even some David Vann thrown in for good measure. Oh, and just a smidgen of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

Things We Didn’t See Coming won the 2009 Age Book of the Year Award for Fiction. It’s currently only available in Australia, but will be published by Pantheon in the USA next month and in the UK by Harvill Secker in August. French and Dutch editions will follow in 2011. Do keep your eye out for it.

Australia, Author, Book review, dystopian, Fiction, HM Brown, Penguin Australia, Publisher, Setting

‘Red Queen’ by H. M. Brown

RedQueen

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Books Australia; 268 pages; 2009.

I’m always intrigued by dystopian fiction so when I stumbled upon this debut novel, set in Australia after a deadly virus has ravaged the world, I couldn’t resist buying it.

Red Queen is the name of the constantly mutating and highly infectious virus which has wiped out most of the human population. The only survivors are “in small groups or families in the country and on farms”.

Brothers Rohan and Shannon Scott are two of those survivors. They live in a secluded cabin in the Australian bush designed specifically as a hideaway should there be an apocalypse. It was built by their now-dead father, who had “a different end-of-the-world theory every week”. It’s alternatively powered and accessible by four-wheel-drive only. The brothers grow their own fruit and vegetables and keep chickens and sheep. And just in case they run out of food and supplies they have a secret bunker (built, again, by dad) stuffed to the brim with canned goods, flour, sugar, wine, clothing and anything else they could possibly need to survive that little bit longer.

But they’re extra cautious about protecting their territory, defending it at all times with loaded guns, until one evening a strange woman, Denny, slips in under the radar and makes herself at home. Her presence changes everything, as a power struggle develops, and the two brothers find themselves falling for her charms.

But all is not as it seems. There’s a slightly menacing overtone, helped in part by Rohan’s frank and rather bullish admission that if Denny leaves “and tries to come back again, or puts us under any risk whatsoever of contamination, I’ll shoot you”.

The tension increases when it becomes clear that Denny’s actions could put all their lives in jeopardy. But because the story is narrated by Shannon, the softer of the two brothers, we only ever get his take on events, making it difficult to determine whether Denny’s intentions are innocent or malicious.

Sadly, I found the characters, particularly the brothers, to be poorly drawn: Rohan is the stereotypical older brother, a bully with a raging temper, while Shannon, with his pony-tail and penchant for playing the guitar, is his weak-willed sibling. Denny is pretty much unknowable, although I suspect that’s deliberate in order to give her an air of mystery.

Fortunately, the cracking narrative pace more than makes up for these faults, although the ending, with everything all neatly wrapped up, does feel a little rushed.

But overall this is an entertaining, sexy read, more psychological thriller than dystopian novel (although someone clearly thinks it’s also a horror novel, because it won best horrornovel at the 2009 Aurealis Awards — go figure). And because Red Queen is chiefly told through dialogue I’m guessing it won’t take long before it’s adapted for either the big or small screen very soon. I rather suspect it would make excellent edge-of-your-seat viewing.

Author, Book review, Chuck Palahniuk, Fiction, Jonathan Cape, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Rant’ by Chuck Palahniuk

Rant

Fiction – hardcover; Jonathan Cape; 336 pages; 2007. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Chuck Palahniuk is one of my favourite authors. He has a distinctive, often experimental, style that mixes black humour with scathing satire. The result is often a very funny, completely surreal, rollicking good read. But his new novel — subtitled The Oral History of Buster Casey — fails to deliver the usual offbeat and inspired narrative I have come to expect.

Rant is essentially a story about a now-dead wayward weirdo — Buster L “Rant” Casey — who is responsible for an urban plague of rabies and other “pranks” across America. It is set in a technologically advanced dystopian future in which people are separated into two distinct groups — daytimers and nighttimers.  The nighttimers, who come out when it is dark, spend a large proportion of their time Party Crashing. This is a sport in which participants deliberately cause car accidents in a rather destructive and surreal version of a demolition derby.

The book is structured as a series of interviews with people who knew Rant before he killed himself. This forms a rather disjointed oral biography in which a vast array of characters reminisce about Rant’s
short but violent life (he died during a Party Crashing event that was screened live on television), analyse his character flaws and personality, speculate about his motives for committing suicide and debate whether his upbringing was to blame for his bad behaviour.

This mock-documentary treatment is a brave and interesting twist on Palahniuk’s usual temporal (told backwards) narrative style, but in my opinion I don’t think it truly works. It comes across as too disjointed and too bitty to build up any narrative flow so that it was a very real struggle to turn the pages.

While Palahniuk introduces some interesting and often hilarious concepts — I love that Party Crashers  recognise each other by dressing their cars with “Just Married” paraphernalia whileparticipants wear bridal gowns — the novel’s flawed structure is a major distraction. This is a shame, because Rant makes some important points about contemporary society, including our obsession with fame, video games and materialism, just to name a few.

If you have not read a Palahniuk novel before, I would not suggest starting with this one, if only because I think it lacks narrative drive. But all the others in his back catalogue — many of which are reviewed on this site — are definitely worth pursuing.