Joe Treasure’s The Book of Air is an absorbing and thought-provoking addition to post-apocalytpic bookshelf. Just as in Louise Welsh’s plague times trilogy and Niccolo Ammaniti’s Anna, an air-borne virus triggers mass extermination. Treasure’s novel interweaves two narratives: the first is a moving account of the loss, grief and confusion of survivors in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic. But it is also a testament to the resilience of the human spirit. The second narrative shows the workings of the new society, two generations down the line, when it is time for Agnes, the main protagonist to come of age. Spaces, artifacts amd events from the first narrative have acquired new ritualistic uses and heightened significance. As survivors seek to reestablish a sense of order in their turbulent world, a new mythology, a new faith almost is born, primarily based on the text of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, one of only three surviving books.
As a lover of both dystopian fiction and literary homage, this is a novel that I highly recommend, and I was delighted when given the opportunity to ask the author a few questions about his chosen genre and the special significance of Jane Eyre in his dystopic world vision.
1) There is an abundance of dystopian fiction on the market. What is it that makes dystopian fiction so popular?
We seem to be living in anxious times. The election of Trump, the rise of the extreme Right here and across Europe, the breakdown of old structures and alliances – all these are causes of anxiety for people like me. They are also symptoms of the anxiety experienced by others, those who are inclined to cling to old certainties and reject the fluidity and diversity of modern life. Maybe that’s part of it. There are also concerns for the planet that make most of us feel powerless. Personally I find it strangely reassuring to imagine the worst, to push that breakdown of order to an extreme, and consider what might survive and how the human spirit might reassert itself. Because there’s a streak of optimism in my vision of the future, dark as it is in some ways. People are creative, they have a deep instinct to solve problems, to form communities, to nurture each other.
2) I love the title! Could you explain its significance?
I’m so glad you like it! A couple of hundred years in the future there’s an isolated farming community. The villagers base their understanding of the world on the three books they’ve inherited, particularly on the Book of Air, which inspires their rituals and punishments and teaches them how to live. This book is Jane Eyre, but out of superstition they never write that mystical word ‘Eyre’ as it appears in the sacred text. 15-year-old Agnes, who has begun to keep a secret journal, loves Jane and takes courage from Jane’s account of her life as she begins writing her own. Of course, Agnes has no concept of fiction and assumes that Jane is real historical person.
3) Why Jane Eyre of all novels? (I’m guessing it’s not just because of the pun …)
I wanted the villagers to have a novel that people reading my book would have heard of. You don’t have to have read Jane Eyre recently, or at all, to follow my story, but it’s important to know that it’s a classic work of fiction that exists in the real world. I thought carefully about which novel to choose. I was thinking about these villagers in the future and what chance they would have of understanding it and responding to it imaginatively. Jane Austen’s novels are too dependent on subtle rules of decorum. Dickens writes about city life and institutions such as law courts, which would be utterly baffling. Jane interacts powerfully with nature. When she discovers that Rochester is already married, and she runs away from his house to avoid giving way to her desire for him, she doesn’t just have her reputation to worry about – she’s actually at risk of starving to death on the moor. I thought, that’s something the villagers would understand. There’s something really elemental about Jane Eyre. So there is a kind of pun there. They associate Jane with the air, as they associate Rochester with rock and earth. Rochester’s mad wife Bertha who sets fire to his bed in the middle of the night and finally burns down the house itself is, of course, fire. And Jane’s other suitor, the cold-blooded St John Rivers is water. That’s one of the ways they understand Jane Eyre, as a story about the clash of elements, which they have to deal with in their struggle to feed and clothe themselves.
4) How did you set about differentiating your dystopia from the rest?
That devotion to the books is one thing. For Agnes and the others, much of village life is determined by the seasons, the growing of crops, the caring for animals. But a lot of what is joyful and colourful about life in the village, and also much of what is sinister about it, is associated with the study of the books. There’s been a fashion for imagining future language as debased, as if all communication will be corrupted to the level of texts and tweets. Agnes writes simply, but in a style modelled on Charlotte Bronte’s prose.
But Agnes’s story is only one half of the book. Interwoven with it is the story told by her ancestor, Jason, who lives through the collapse of society and the death of most of the human population, before helping to forge a community of survivors. There have been lots of dystopian stories featuring deadly viruses. This one has a unique symptom, which people in the story find both fascinating and profoundly disturbing. In the brief period of time between ‘the sweats’ and ‘the staggers’ – when the fever is raging but the sufferer is not yet physically incapacitated – there’s a burst of creative energy when the sufferer is prompted to paint or to make music, improvising with whatever materials come to hand. People call this ‘the blessing’ because the results are sometimes startlingly beautiful.
5) What’s next for Joe Treasure?
I’m working on a collection of short stories set in the future. I’m hoping to find room for some utopias among the other kind.
This post is part of Clink Street Spring Reads 2018.