Just wondering if you know the story of how this blog came to be? I lost a notebook containing 5 years of reading notes and decided that, henceforth, I would put those notes somewhere I couldn’t lose them. Cue the birth of Lizzy’s Literary Life. Right now I am filled with a sense of déjà-vu, because my #edbookfest notebook is missing ….
That is not the apocalypse to which the title of this post refers, however. Rather to those in the latest novels of Louise Welsh and Heinz Helle. As if one were not enough, Edinburgh Book Festival treated us to two within the space of one hour.
No Dominion is the third in Louise Welsh’s trilogy, set in a world ravaged by The Sweats, a flu-like pandemic, which has killed off about 80% of the world’s population. 7 years after the Sweats first struck, the main protagonists of the two previous novels, Stevie Flint and Magnus McFall, find themselves on Orkney where the community has established a fledgling democracy. A handful of surviving orphans have been fostered. The majority of them are now adolescent and, in addition to the usual teenage angst, are now in the throes of a fury caused by the limitations of their future. So when strangers appear on the island and promise them a better future on the mainland, specifically in Glasgow, they all run away.
But just before they go, the foster parents of one of the children are brutally murdered. This gives both Stevie Flint (now elected leader of the New Orkney council – “the sweats were the making of her”‘, said Louise Welsh) and Magnus McFall, the foster father of one of the runways, valid reason to give chase. The journey to Glasgow is fraught with danger, because not every form of governance encountered along the way is as reasonable as that established in Orkney. They encounter feudalism, protectionism, and, when they get to Glasgow, dictatorship, all with psychopaths installed as leaders. While Stevie and Magnus show ever escalating and most alarming tendencies to match violence with violence, the malignity of these new regimes does not bode well for the survival of the naive teenagers who have preceded them.
“It is a quest”, said Louise Welsh. “All my novels are quests.” Indeed, but this is a terrifying, violent quest, and its vivid depictions of that violence are not for the squeamish. At its core, No Dominion raises two fundamental questions: 1) when it is OK to kill another human being?, and 2) when does a child stop being a child? In the context of a trilogy examining a broad range of societal issues – book 1, A Lovely Way to Burn, the pharmaceutical industry, book 2, Death is A Welcome Guest, the justice system and religious fanaticism – this third volume focuses on human political systems. I can’t fault Welsh for the ambition of her undertaking, and I have raced through all three volumes this year, but I do wish there could have been less swearing. I know, I know. Given the extreme circumstances, such language is in keeping with the realism of Welsh’s writing, but I did find myself wishing there could have been less – a lot less – of it.
Now Heinz Helle has written the non-sweary post-apocalyptic novel I was wishing for, but it’s no less shocking for that. If fact, given the pared down language and matter-of-fact narrative style, its shock factor is probably greater.
Each year Helle takes a vacation with his male friends in the Tyrol. One morning as he looked down into the valley, he wondered what would happen if they were to find that the world had ended while they were away …. cue, Euphoria, surely the most ironic title of the year.
Just think about it – do you have the skillsets to survive in a world where all our technological innovations are defunct.? Nothing works anymore; all the food is gone and the rest of mankind has been obliterated as well. There is no explanation for what has happened in Helle’s novel. In fact, the author himself does not know, “Explaining the science is not important”, agreed Louise Welsh, “because the book is not about the science.” So what would you do?
The 5 men in Helle’s novel descend to the valley, scavenging what they can along the way, losing their morals, language and humanity as they trudge through the countryside. We’re in Lord of The Flies territory here, but with grown men. Where are they heading? Away from here – to somewhere better. Movement is their only remaining purpose in life and their hold on life is precarious. All it takes is an accident ….
Structured into 69 episodes, shuffling between the post-apocalyptic present and the comfortable pre-apocalyptic past, the descent into barbarity is inevitable; shock lying in the speed of it. I felt that even though the rape scene, episode 1 in the original German edition, does not appear until scene 16 in the English translation. (Good call, I feel. I doubt I would have read on with that as an opening, despite the dispassion of its telling.) The shuffling of past and present serves as a constant reminder of what these men have lost, and. more importantly, a reminder of what we have now, of what should make us feel euphoric. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel, both literally and metaphorically for Helle’s protagonists, but that needn’t be the case for us. “We shouldn’t take what we have for granted”, said Helle. We need to protect it now. Once lost, we may never regain it.