British novelist Calder previously co-wrote a dystopian sci-fi novel – The Offset, with Emma Szewczak – that was published by a small independent publisher, Angry Robot Books. This time, Calder is launching her solo debut with indie publishing powerhouse, Bloomsbury, but her preoccupation with dystopian societies is sustained.
A complete antibiotic resistance has decimated the planet, resulting in the loss of almost all human life. Kit and Crevan are the exceptions – two people with an ambivalent relationship who have eked out an existence in an underground bunker of a dilapidated castle on a remote island. When a woman washes up on shore, still alive but unconscious, their fragile reality is challenged with grave consequences.
Calder is an intensely lyrical writer whose passages in another form might be read as prose poetry. While there are moments of great brilliance in her prosaic style, the claustrophobia of the relentlessly dense work means they are seldom given room to breathe. The cumulative effect reads as self-indulgent on the part of the author who becomes a victim of her own writerly talent by over-cooking it. Less would definitely have been more. For those drawn to this novel for its premise, looking to inhabit this dystopian world and understand how it works, these eloquent but elongated musings will be difficult to wade through. If you are attracted, however, by the thought of luxuriating inside the mind of an intelligent, verbose narrator who articulates her observations and reflections in minute detail, then Kit is the protagonist for you.
Nonetheless, there is a startling disconnect between the internal consciousness of Kit and her speaking voice when in dialogue with Craven, which is childlike and simplistic. Ultimately an explanation comes for this but much too late to neutralise the jarred reading experience throughout. Rather than an earned revelation, this disclosure also feels more like an inauthentic sleight of hand by the author, who has deliberately withheld key information to aim for maximum impact later.
Calder is excellent at conjuring an eerie atmosphere, with Gothic undertones and a creeping sense of unease. If she can harness her literary talent to support, rather than overwhelm, her narrative, then this novel speaks to great potential for powerful work in the future.