20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), Author, Book review, Cynan Jones, dystopian, Fiction, Granta, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, UK

‘Stillicide’ by Cynan Jones

Fiction – hardcover; Granta; 180 pages; 2019.

Stillicide, n
1. A continual dropping of water.
2. Law — A right or duty relating to the collection of water from or onto adjacent land.
From Latin ‘stillicidium’, from ‘stilla’ drop + ‘-cidium’, from ‘cadere’ to fall.

Cynan Jones’ latest work, Stillicide, was originally conceived as 12 stories to be read aloud in 15-minute slots on BBC Radio 4. The stories were interconnected to form a collective whole, but each had to work as a standalone piece.

As Jones explains in his Author’s Note, “Being for radio, with listeners not having the chance to turn back a page, the world and its characters had to have an immediacy and be clear on first listening”.

The work has now been published in book form by Granta.

A future without water

The stories are all set in the not-too-distant future, where water has become so scarce it has to be “imported” via huge icebergs, towed from the Arctic Circle. A specially built Ice Dock is under construction but the project is now threatening to displace many residents, and people are protesting the plan.

Two years since the project started. An anniversary today. Of the beginning of construction, that started with a ribbon of buildings being demolished, before we could begin. A gash cut through the city to steer the iceberg through.

Meanwhile, a Water Train transports this now-rare commodity, but it, too, is under threat of heists and hold-ups. (A previous pipeline, taking water into the heart of the city, has been closed down because it had been bombed one too many times.)

There is only early morning light. Then the Water Train passes. Different. A weight of sound. The sound of a great waterfall crashing into a pool. It has the power church bells must used to have.

We, the reader, experience this dystopian world through the eyes of a diverse range of characters whose lives and livelihoods are impacted one way or the other by stillicide, but it’s mostly centred on Branner, a marksman, who defends the Water Train from the people who wish to derail it.

An ambitious project

Did I like this book? I’m not sure. It’s an ambitious project and I admired the premise and the execution — Jones is a superb writer, his prose is pared back and reads like poetry — but I struggled to “get” some of the individual stories and often couldn’t figure out what was going on.

I don’t think it helped that I read this in short snatches here and there; it’s definitely the type of book that would benefit from reading in one sitting.

I don’t “do” audiobooks, per se, but I do wonder if I might have got more out of Stillicide had I heard the radio series first. I’m happy to report all 12 episodes are available to listen to online — but only for a few more days!

This is my 8th book for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. I purchased it in Dymocks last January because I had read a couple of Cynan Jones‘ previous novels and loved them.

2020 Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, dystopian, Fiction, Laura Jean McKay, Literary prizes, Publisher, Scribe, Setting

‘The Animals in that Country’ by Laura Jean McKay

Fiction – paperback; Scribe; 288 pages; 2020.

The 2020 Miles Franklin Literary Award longlist is due to be announced later this month and I’d like to think that Laura Jean McKay’s The Animals in that Country may feature on it.

This wholly original novel is unique in so many ways, not least of which is its premise: there’s a flu-like pandemic raging across Australia that allows those infected to understand what animals are saying. But being able to communicate with non-humans — including mammals, birds and insects — isn’t as wonderful as you might expect, for the messages, random, garbled and incessant, are frightening: the animals are calling for help.

Preposterous but plausible

I ate this book up in the space of a weekend. I would put it down and then itch to pick it up again. It’s spellbinding in a way few dystopian novels can be spellbinding. It posits a truly preposterous idea, yet makes it seem totally plausible.

The story is narrated by a kickass, foul-mouthed protagonist called Jean, who works as a guide at a local wildlife zoo. Jean has “issues” — she’s a hard drinker, a chain smoker and likes rough-and-ready sex with her married male friend, which she usually doesn’t remember the next day. She doesn’t normally get on with people, but she’s devoted to her granddaugher Kim, loves her wayward missing-in-action adult son Lee and has a soft spot for a young dingo called Sue.

The latter “relationship” is important, because when the pandemic hits the local area, and Lee turns up infected to “steal back” Kim and do a runner, it is Sue who provides the companionship Jean craves when she hits the road looking for her son. And it is Sue who is the first animal to communicate with her.

Half the traffic lights are out. The camper’s got low revs, takes off like a baby elephant. I plug in my phone, pull a slug of Angela’s bourbon, wind down the windows and gun it anyway. Beside me sits a dingo dog. Some wolf, some kelpie camp mutt. Her sandy behind on the shotgun seat. Panting, she draws in great gulps of the hot air. A flash of tooth.
RABBIT.
OH SHIT. (DEAD BITS
OF ME.) THAT ONE’S
FOR THE GROUND. THAT’S FOR MY
GUMS.
HOW ABOUT
THERE. AND THERE.
AND —
‘Why are you helping me, Sue? I mean, why aren’t you with your brothers?’
She peels her nose from the window. Amber eyes swirling.
ITS WHOLE FACE
A DESERT WITH WATER. IT’S
WHOLE (YESTERDAY)
MOUTH
THE SKY.

As the pandemic progresses, those infected begin to lose their minds because they can’t shut off the overwhelming babble of animal voices. There’s no quiet. Everything is noise.

Jean keeps her head while everyone around her loses theirs. Her journey is perilous and deliriously strange.

Bold and experimental

Tightly plotted, bold and experimental, The Animals in that Country does intriguing things with language (as you might have noticed from the above quote). The animal voices emerge as an unstoppable stream of consciousness, none of which makes much sense, but the way it is laid out on the page makes it appear like a brutal kind of poetry. (In places, it reminded me just a little of Eimer McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing.)

But it is Jean’s obscene, audacious voice which provides the real flavour. I liked being in her company, even if I didn’t always like what she got up to or what she witnessed.

By the time I got to the end of this dazzling novel, I felt spent — but in a good way. This is a challenging and compelling read, one that makes you look at the world, and how we relate to animals, in a completely different way. I feel forever changed having read it.

The Animals in that Country was published in Australia last month. It will be published in the UK and USA in September, and Canada in October (although the Kindle version is available to buy in all territories now).

This is my 7th book for #AWW2020.

UPDATE September 2020: This is my 1st book for #2020ReadingsPrize for New Australian Fiction

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Canongate, dystopian, Fiction, Italy, Niccolo Ammaniti, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR2020

‘Anna’ by Niccolò Ammaniti

Cover image of Anna by Niccolò Ammaniti

Fiction – Kindle edition; Canongate; 273 pages; 2017. Translated from the Italian by Johnathan Hunt. Review copy courtesy of NetGalley.

A deadly virus has killed every adult in Italy and the world has irrevocably changed. There’s no electricity, no transport, no food. The cities are empty, the roads quiet. The world is run by children, who fight among themselves for survival, and feral dogs roam the countryside. The date? October 2020!

Reading Niccolò Ammaniti’s post-apocalyptic novel Anna right now was quite a freaky experience. When I found it lurking on my Kindle I had no idea about its contents. There was no blurb, I just knew that I liked the author’s work having previously read his novels I’m Not Scared (published in 2003) and Me and You (2012). So when I realised it was about a deadly pandemic I wondered what the universe was telling me! The whole book felt scarily prescient.

Set in Sicily

Set in Sicily, the story follows 13-year-old Anna, who lives on Mulberry Farm with her nine-year-old brother, Astor. The siblings have been living alone for four years following the death of their mother from a flu-like virus.

The virus, which has killed every adult in the world, lies dormant in children, appearing only when they reach puberty.

When you reach maturity, red blotches start to appear on your skin. Sometimes they appear straight away, sometimes it takes longer. When the virus grows in your body you start to cough, you find it hard to breathe, all your muscles ache, and scabs form in your nostrils and your hands. Then you die.

Much of the book’s plot centres on two kinds of jeopardy. The first is the threat posed by Anna and Astor wandering the now lawless land in search of food, where every stranger is a danger and wild dogs have the potential to eat them alive; the second is Anna’s countdown to puberty because as soon as she gets her first period it’s likely she’ll also develop the illness that will kill her.

Girls’ own adventure story

It reads very much like a girls’ own adventure story as Anna leaves Mulberry Farm to not only look for supplies but to follow the instructions left by her mother: head for the mainland in case there are adult survivors living there.

Along the way she loses Astor, finds him again, meets up with other children, some of whom are violent and dangerous, others who are helpful and friendly, and chases a rumour that there’s an old lady living in a hotel who has a cure for the virus. She also finds a wild dog who becomes a loyal companion.

I can’t say I loved this book; I think I found it a little too close to the bone given the current covid-19 pandemic. But the writing is beautiful in places, the storytelling is masterful, the characters are well-drawn and the atmosphere is suitably dark and menacing. It’s a heartfelt portrait of sibling loyalty and ends on a hopeful note.

This is my 13th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I actually requested this as a review copy from NetGalley when it first came out, but never got around to reading it — until now. Timing is everything, right?

Author, Book review, dystopian, Fiction, London, Megan Hunter, Picador, Publisher, Setting, UK

‘The End We Start From’ by Megan Hunter

The end we start from

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 144 pages; 2018.

Apparently British actor Benedict Cumberbatch enjoyed Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From so much his production company bought the film rights. It’s easy to see why he was so enamoured of this debut novella: it’s powerful, evocative and lyrical.

Set some time in the future, it follows one woman’s journey to survive the floodwaters that have engulfed London and forced its residents to seek refuge elsewhere. The woman’s journey is complicated by the fact that she has just given birth to her first child, a boy, and all her energy and focus is devoted to him. The world outside, descending into chaos, appears to be of no concern.

Z is real, with his tiny cat skull and sweet-smelling crap. The news is rushing by. It is easy to ignore.

When her husband fails to return from an outing in search of supplies, the woman is forced to travel alone with her newborn, setting up home in a refugee camp and, much later, on a secluded island.

But this isn’t a book that you read for the plot. It’s essentially a “mood piece” written in sparse sentences, one per paragraph, that resemble lines of poetry. Indeed, I’d describe it as a prose novella, because it feels very much like reading one long poem. (No surprise, then, that the author is also a poet.)

Everything is scant on detail. There are no names, beyond Z for the baby, R for the husband, G for the mother-in-law and so on. And we never really know what’s going on in the world outside because the book is very much focused on the relationship between the mother and her son.

As much as I loved the beautiful sentences in this novel, the oh-so perfect word choice and the lovely cadence and tempo of the prose, the motherhood analogy soon wore thin. The message — that maternal love remains undiminished even in the most dire of circumstances — began to feel a bit laboured. I think I just wanted more from this book — and I was never going to get it.

That said, The End We Start From has much to recommend it, not least the exquisite beauty of the prose and the lovely, languid nature of the storytelling. It’s certainly not your typical dystopian novel: our narrator is caught inside her own experience, raising a child and is focussed solely on her domestic realm. It’s a haunting and elusive tale of survival — but it’s also one about hope and of savouring quiet, often fleeting, moments of joy.

2018 Stella Prize, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2018, Book review, Claire G. Coleman, dystopian, Fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, science fiction, Setting

‘Terra Nullius’ by Claire G. Coleman

Fiction – Kindle edition; Hachette Australia; 304 pages; 2017.

Claire G. Coleman’s Terra Nullius is a damning portrait of colonial settlement in Australia.

Told through a series of intertwined narratives, it seems to mimic the history of aboriginal dispossession at the hands of white settlers, but a clever twist about a third of the way through indicates the story is about something else entirely — and the revelation is unsettling if you’re not expecting it.

(I’m not going to be more specific than that; I already fear I’ve given too much of the plot away.)

Shortlisted for the 2018 Stella Prize, this novel gets full marks for originality, but I’m afraid I didn’t really warm to the story. Whenever I put it down, I was loath to pick it up again. And yet I so wanted to love this book. I bought it long before its prize listing because it had received such great reviews and I had saved it up for months, waiting for the right time and place to begin reading it.

Why I didn’t love this book

I think my main issue is that I didn’t really connect with any of the characters, even those I liked and would normally want to cheer on, such as Jacky Jerramungup, the fugitive on the run from the homestead where he’d been held as a slave. Perhaps it’s because all the characters were poorly drawn; they lacked depth and had little to no interior life, making it hard to understand their motivations or beliefs. Some were even horrendously clichéd, such as the horrid bad nun, Sister Bagra, who treats the stolen children in her care with cruelty and inhumanity.

And for a book that has an important message to impart — about “otherness” and subjugation of indigenous peoples — a message that needs to be told, it just felt too heavy-handed, too obvious. I suspect that was deliberate because the author thought there was no room for nuance in the story she wanted to tell.

I also thought the novel was too long, too repetitive and the pacing was too slow. The bulk of the narrative is a chase story — a man on the run from the law — but it seems to take forever to get to the climax. The editor in me reckons it could easily have been told in half the number of pages and perhaps it might have been even better as a short story.

What I did appreciate

But what I did like was Coleman’s writing, which is stripped back and almost devoid of adjectives unless they’re absolutely necessary. Her descriptions of the landscape, in particular, and the Australian climate are vivid and wonderfully alive. She describes dawn as “tentative tendrils of light”, rugged woodland as full of “dripping trees and scratching, tangling, grabbing bushes”, the heat as being strong enough to “melt the new paint off your walls”.

And I appreciate the way she takes history — including all the ugly bits that have shaped white and black relations in Australia — and presents it as something new, as something revelatory, as something that should make all of us sit up and listen: what if this had happened to us and not them?

So yes, there’s no doubting that Terra Nullius is a powerful book and an important one, but while I appreciate the author’s aims and her motivations, it just didn’t work for me.

This is my 6th book for #AWW2018 and my 2nd for the 2018 Stella Prize shortlist.

Anchor Books, Author, Book review, dystopian, Fiction, Margaret Atwood, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaids Tale

Fiction – paperback; Anchor Books; 311 pages; 1998.

We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices.

First published in 1986, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is going through a revival right now thanks mainly to the Hulu TV production, which screened in the US earlier this year and is currently being shown on Channel 4 here in the UK.

My edition, by Anchor Books, has been sitting on my shelf unread ever since picking it up in a charity shop more than a decade ago. I decided it would be a good idea to read it before I started watching the 10-part TV series, so I packed it in my suitcase on a recent trip to the Greek island of Rhodes and devoured it one (unseasonably) rainy day.

A classic feminist novel

What’s left to say about this classic that hasn’t already been said? Most of you will know it’s a dystopian novel where women are seen solely as reproductive chattels, that they live in a strictly organised patriarchal society, but are governed by other women, known as Aunts, and that they have no rights: they cannot earn money, wear make-up, listen to music or read books.

And you will also know that women must wear a strict uniform influenced by old school Roman Catholic nuns, puritanical Christians and Islamic abayas. And that the handmaids are assigned to Commanders, wealthy men who are married to infertile women, for the sole purpose of bearing them children.

But in case you haven’t read the book, nor seen the TV series, let me elaborate further.

First person narrator

The story is narrated in the first person by Offred (not her real name) in a dry, almost clinical manner:

I am thirty-three years old. I have brown hair. I stand five seven without shoes. I have trouble remembering what I used to look like. I have viable ovaries. I have one more chance.

There’s a bittersweet pathos to her voice because she’s old enough to remember a time before these misogynistic laws came in and how things got so horribly turned on their head in what seems like the blink of an eye.

It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the president and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on Islamic fanatics, at the time.
Keep calm, they said on television. Everything is under control.
I was stunned. Everyone was, I know that. It was hard to believe. The entire government, gone like that. How did they get in, how did it happen?
That’s when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn’t even an enemy you could put your finger on.
Look out, said Moira to me, over the phone. Here it comes.
Here what comes? I said.
You wait, she said. They’ve been building up to this. It’s you and me up against the wall, baby. She was quoting an expression of my mother’s, but she wasn’t intending to be funny.

Laws are brought in overnight which forbid women from working, holding a bank account, owning property or being gay. Their lives are now restricted to the merest of functions, but the book posits an interesting theory: that taking away women’s freedom has created a safer, more comfortable, world for them:

We’ve given them [women] more than we’ve taken away, said the Commander. Think of the trouble they had before. Don’t you remember the singles’ bars, the indignity of high school blind dates? The meat market. Don’t you remember the terrible gap between the ones who could get a man easily and the one’s who couldn’t? Some of them were desperate, they starved themselves thin or pumped their breasts full of silicone, had their noses cut off. Think of the human misery.

Uncomfortable reading

I won’t elaborate further on the plot, but let’s just say the book makes for uncomfortable reading (the TV series, or the few episodes that I have viewed so far, are even more uncomfortable), but it’s an impressive, thought-provoking story that poses the question, what if…? What if rules restricting our freedom were brought in overnight? What if everything we take for granted now was taken away from us? What if we — and when I say “we”, I essentially mean white Western women for that is who this book is aimed at — could no longer earn money, be educated, lead independent lives?

There’s no denying that reading this book in the current political climate it’s hard not to see echoes of Trump’s America and the “new normal” in it  — by which I mean it’s a prescient warning about how quickly things can change and new regimes/eras can be ushered in before we’ve had a chance to realise what’s happening.

Interestingly, for a novel that’s written in such a coolly detached voice and with little or no dialogue in it, it is a highly engaging read. I can understand why The Handmaid’s Tale is a modern classic; it’s influenced many books that have followed, not the least Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things, which makes a nice companion piece to this one.

But even so, I felt slightly too old for this story to have too much of an impact on me: if I’d read it, say, in my twenties, I think its power might have resonated with me more. That said, it’s a terrific, albeit horrific, read.

Author, Book review, dystopian, Fiction, Octavia E. Butler, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Parable of the Sower’ by Octavia E. Butler

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E Butler

Fiction – Kindle edition; Headline Publishing; 308 pages; 2014.

First published in 1993, Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower seems remarkably prescient.

Set in the year 2027 — just 10 years from now — in a small town 20 miles from Los Angeles, it depicts a world in which the normal rules of society have broken down. People live in walled communities to protect themselves from rampaging mobs; food is so expensive people either grow their own or steal it; and water is in short supply.

Jobs are scarce and wages are so low many workers are indentured to the companies that employ them. Guns are a way of life and everyone learns from an early age how to defend themselves in case of violent attack. And most people despise politicians because they’ve failed to “return us to the glory, wealth, and order of the twentieth century”.

But there is a glimmer of hope:

Christopher Charles Morpeth Donner is our new President—President-elect. So what are we in for? Donner has already said that as soon as possible after his inauguration next year, he’ll begin to dismantle the “wasteful, pointless, unnecessary” moon and Mars programs. Near space programs dealing with communications and experimentation will be privatized—sold off. Also, Donner has a plan for putting people back to work. He hopes to get laws changed, suspend “overly restrictive” minimum wage, environmental, and worker protection laws for those employers willing to take on homeless employees and provide them with training and adequate room and board.

How eerily familiar it all sounds, right?

A young narrator

The story is narrated by 15-year-old Lauren Olamina, the daughter of a black Baptist preacher. She has a rare condition called “hyperempathy syndrome”, which means she feels other people’s pain as well as her own, the result of her late mother’s addiction to a drug called Paracetco.

Having this syndrome is shameful, so Lauren keeps it a secret from everyone she knows, but it puts her in mortal danger, for if she sees someone near her dying, whether by gunshot wound, violent rape or something else, she experiences the same symptoms.

So when her community succumbs to a devastating fire attack, which kills all her immediate family and many of her friends, she finds herself in the dangerous “outside world”, confronted by all manner of threats to her hypersensitive “antenna”.

A story of two halves

The book is essentially two halves: the first sets the scene and shows us how complicated, messy and violent the world has become; the second charts Lauren’s time on the road as she heads north with a small group intent on finding refuge in the wilderness. It’s a bit like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road but instead of an apocalyptic wasteland Lauren must trudge through an America consumed by paranoia, violent crime, murder, rape and drug addiction.

I admit that I had problems with this dystopian novel. Yes, the themes and issues it presents — about societal breakdown, the importance of empathy and the need to embrace diversity — are particularly relevant and timely given what’s happening across the world right now. But it’s far too long and the prose too pedestrian for my liking. (I had the same problem with Butler’s Fledgling, which I read back in 2010.)

I also didn’t much like the religious overtones, for Lauren’s aim is to set up her own religion called Earthseed. This is designed to help people adapt to a new, constantly changing world in which so many inadequately prepared people have to fend for themselves.

In some quarters Parable of the Sower is billed as a Young Adult novel, so it may just be that I’m not the target audience — yet pretty much everyone in my book group liked it.

Parable of the Sower is the first book of the Earthseed series; the second is the Nebula Award winner Parable of the Talents. As much as I’d like to know what happens to Lauren, I don’t think I will race to read the sequel.

2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award, 2016 Stella Prize, Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, Charlotte Wood, dystopian, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting

‘The Natural Way of Things’ by Charlotte Wood

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 315 pages; 2015.

Like the beautiful image on the cover in which gorgeous flora and fauna hide the objects of captivity  — chains, locks, a knife and barbed wire — Charlotte Wood‘s The Natural Way of Things reveals the darker elements of society which are often obscured by our shallow obsessions with, for instance, sex, glamour and celebrity.

In a narrative that is both gripping and illuminating, Wood creates a dystopian world that doesn’t actually look much different to the current one. Here, women are punished for involvement in sexual “crimes” and misdemeanours in which they have been publicly shamed and their male perpetrators have got away scot-free.

When the story opens, we meet two women, Yolanda and Verla, who have awoken after a drugged sleep. They find themselves in an unfamiliar room and they are both wearing “stupid Amish clothes”. They are guarded by two men in boiler suits. Where are they? What have they done to be imprisoned in this manner? What can they do to escape?

What would people in their old lives be saying about the girls? Would they be called missing? Would some documentary program on the ABC that nobody watched, or one of those thin newspapers nobody read, somehow connect their cases, find the thread to make them a story? The Lost Girls, they would be called. Would it be said, they ‘disappeared’, ‘were lost’? Would it be said they were abandoned or taken, the way people said a girl was attacked, a woman was raped, this femaleness always at the centre, as if womanhood itself were the cause of these things? As if the girls somehow, through the natural way of things, did it to themselves. They lured abduction and abandonment to themselves, they marshalled themselves into this prison where they had made their beds, and now, once more, were lying in them.

The answers to those questions are revealed slowly as we follow Yolanda and Verla (and the other women held captive with them) over the course of a year. It’s a brutal, often harsh existence, but there are chinks of light as the women reconnect with nature (Wood writes eloquently of the quintessential Australian landscape and the wildlife, birds in particular) and learn to forget their external appearance and focus on their inner strength instead.

Their back stories are nicely fleshed out, showing how each character came to be in her current situation — and highlighting how varied their sex “crimes” had been. It’s a powerful, often terrifying, read, one that alters your perspective and leaves the reader changed in some indelible way.

A story of sexual shaming

The book is clearly an intelligent and highly original response to our modern, switched-on digital lives, where sexual shaming, particularly via social media, has become normalised. This is how one character puts it:

In the days to come she will learn what she is, what they all are. That they are the ministers-little-travel-tramp and that Skype-slut and the yuck-ugly-dog from the cruise ship; they are pig-on-a-spit and big-red-box, moll-number-twelve and bogan-gold-digger-gangbang-slut. They are what happens when you don’t keep your fucking fat slag’s mouth shut.

But for all its exposé of misogyny, where there’s one rule for men and one for women, The Natural Way of Things is not a feminist rant. Yes, it bubbles with a slow-burning anger and it highlights the duplicity and hypocrisy of our society and shows how victims are often blamed for the horrible things that happen to them, but Wood is careful not to tar all men with the same brush.

The women in this story don’t come off lightly either. Some alliances are formed, but generally they compete against one another, and there’s a memorable scene near the end in which they all go crazy for goody bags (“they cry out and unscrew bottles and squish creams into their hands and press sticky gloss to their flaking lips with their dirty fingers”) that reveals shallow obsessions — with appearance, with shopping, with material possessions.

But the story is just as much about power and survival than anything else, and it should appeal to both male and female readers.

Visual novel with tightly controlled language

The novel is very visual (it’s no surprise that the feature film rights have been acquired by independent producers Katia Nizic and Emma Dockery) and the language, sometimes searing and blasphemous, is always tightly controlled, eloquent and delicious to read. Indeed, Wood is one of my favourite authors — I’ve reviewed  The Submerged Cathedral (2004),  The Children (2008) and Animal People (2011) — but this new novel is a sharp and unexpected change in direction for her, and I’m hoping that its popularity and critical acclaim will bring her earlier work to a much wider audience. She deserves it.

In Australia, The Natural Way of Things has already won the 2016 Indie Book of the Year. It has been shortlisted for the 2016 Stella Prize, to be announced on 12 April, and longlisted for the 2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award.

It has been widely reviewed by Australian bloggers (see the Australian Women Writers Challenge website for links) as well as Simon Savidge here in the UK.

It will be published in the UK by Allen & Unwin on 2 June, and in Canada/USA by Europa on 28 June.

This is my 17th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 13th for #AWW2016.

Author, Book review, dystopian, England, Fiction, John Christopher, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher, science fiction, Setting

‘The Death of Grass’ by John Christopher

TheDeathofGrass

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 208 pages; 2009.

How I do love a good dystopian novel. I seem to have read a string of them of late, including two in the past month: Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steven Amsterdam and Red Queen by H. M. Brown. I picked up The Death of Grass by John Christopher on the strength of Gaskella’s excellent review, although I had previously seen John Self’s review last year and been impressed enough to go out and buy my own copy.

The story is one of those bleak narratives hugely reminiscent of The Road by Cormac McCarthy, although the original publication of this one precedes McCarthy’s by about half-a-century: The Death of Grass was first published in 1956.

But unlike McCarthy’s novel, which opens in a post-apocalyptic world and never explains how the end of civilisation occurred, Christopher’s novel begins in relative normality and then shows how a virus sweeping the world’s production crops finally arrives on British shores, with devastating consequences.

In the beginning our protagonist, John Constance, is happily married to Ann, has two children, Mary and Davey, and lives a rather comfortable life in suburban London. John’s best friend is Roger Buckley, who is married to Olivia and has a young son.

The two families socialise together and spend their weekends in a caravan by the seaside. They go about their lives without being too distracted by the Chung-Li virus, which has already wiped out rice crops in China, causing the death of 200 million people. But then things get decidedly worse…

As autumn settled into winter, the news from the East steadily worsened. First India, then Burma and Indo-China relapsed into famine and barbarism. Japan and the eastern states of the Soviet Union went shortly afterwards, and Pakistan erupted into a desperate wave of Western conquest which, composed though it was of starving and unarmed vagabonds, reached into Turkey before it was halted.

For quite some time Britain remains relatively unaffected, although “cakes disappeared in England, but bread was still available to all”. And then Roger drops his bombshell: as PR officer to the Ministry of Production he’s discovered an alarming secret — the British Government has been lying to the people, famine is just around the corner and their solution  is to drop a series of devastating atom bombs on all the major cities to kill the population before 54 million people die from starvation.

Oh yes, it all gets a bit sinister from now on in. And I must admit by the time I’d reached this part of the book, I really didn’t want to put it down. How would John, Roger and their families get out of this rotten mess?

Their solution is to take to the road and head north to a farm, owned by John’s younger brother, in a secluded and defensible valley somewhere beyond the Pennines. But they have to hurry, as transport out of London is due to be banned and road closures are imminent. They take precautions by arming themselves with weapons bought from a central London gunshop and end up taking the owner of that gunshop, the calm but somewhat ruthless Pirrie, with them.

The book then becomes a cross between a wild Western, complete with gun-slinging shoot-outs, a road journey and a boys’ own adventure story. The narrative rips along at a fair old pace — and it has to, because the book is just 208 pages long. But, sadly, this is at the expense of proper characterisation and quite a few holes in the plot. Occasionally, thinking I’d missed something, I went back and re-read certain sections only to discover that, well, I hadn’t missed a thing — Christopher simply hadn’t bothered with the detail.

Interestingly, the best bit is seeing how quickly the veil of civilisation slips from all the main characters, who find themselves doing all kinds of illegal and immoral things before they’ve even left the city. The further they get out of London the worse it gets. (For this reason, the book invites comparisons with William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, as Robert MacFarlane points out in the introduction to this edition, because it shows “how close to the surface darkness lurks in any given group”.)

Admittedly I found The Death of Grass a genuinely thrilling and often frightening read. But it was much more violent than I expected and most of the narrative comprises a series of gun fights, which is fine if you like that sort of thing, but a bit wearisome if you don’t. It’s probably not everyone’s cup of tea, but I’m grateful to have read it and just pray Christopher’s vision of a world brought to its knees by a deadly environmental virus remains firmly in the realms of fiction…