I am lucky enough to receive quite a few review books in the post. Some of these I snap up, some of these end up sitting in the living room for a while – and my housemate Melissa nabbed (with my full blessing and encouragement) a novel called When The Floods Came. Even better, she wrote me a review of it! Here it is – do make her feel welcome please.
There’s a certain trend in literature these days that plays on our insecurities about what we really know to be true. Everyone loves a good whodunnit where the killer is revealed at the end, or an action adventure where the good guys win; but the fact is that in real life juries disagree on who actually did it and no-one is quite sure who the good guys were in the first place. Reading this book on a day when I’m feeling disjointed and confused about whether the world makes any sense at all may have been a good thing – I’m not sure I could have stomached something with the quiet certainty of Narnia or the inevitable outcome of Pride and Prejudice.
I don’t know enough literary history to know whether authors have always exploited our insecurities; I do know that there are many variations of the dystopic novel on bookstore shelves at the moment, and this one fits firmly into that trend. There’s the introduction to a new world with the unsettling mix of familiar and unfamiliar; the gradual piecing together of how our world fell apart and this new world was built on it; the lack of clarity about who is really in control and whether or not they’re on the right side. This world has been shaped by many of the things we’re afraid of today: environmental change, market forces, uncontrollable disease, ill-considered government policies. The UK has been decimated by epidemic, quarantined by the outside world, flattened by storms, cut off from all but online contact with the rest of the world and the occasional aid package dropped by drone. It’s a world where education and high-level technology – our traditional markers of progress – provide no protection from danger and deprivation.
Against this backdrop live the Polenskys. The parents are transplants from an age we’re familiar with, activists who welcomed decisive action on climate change and fought corporate domination by Amazon (it’s rare for a novel to mention a company by name!) They are concerned about their children’s education, behaviour and values as much as their security. The kids are independent and ambitious, exploring freely across the territory around their home, working online for Chinese companies who pay them in education and medical security, happy to cooperate with government rules that their parents find stifling. They’re surprisingly well-rounded given their tiny social circle in a world where people are few and people under twenty are pretty much extinct. The family has their secret (which is hardly a secret given that they’ve no-one around them to hide it from): little daughter Lucia was a waif found by the roadside and adopted in place of their own little one who did not survive. She doesn’t know this but you get the feeling that she can feel it, and needs an increased level of reassurance that she really does belong.
Their secluded family life, in an area of Birmingham where no-one else lives anymore, is about to change as 22-year-old narrator Roza plans her wedding to a work colleague she’s never met in person. Hector is a part of Roza’s life that never fully materialises, appearing as a hologram or in voice messages and nervously awaited in the flesh; a joker who allows only occasional glimpses of his real self to show through. The wedding will involve a trip to Brighton for the whole family – a first outing in two decades to a place that really is inhabited.
But before any of this expected change can occur, the family is disrupted by the arrival of Aashay, a charmer who moves into a neighbouring flat that has lain empty for years and who refuses to provide an explanation for himself. He clearly holds some attraction for Roza and I thought at first that it would be one of those (*annoying*) novels where a hot guy who turns up out of the blue and disrupts all her safe and sensible plans. But that isn’t quite the way it goes, and the family’s relationship with Aashay continues to fluctuate between friendship and distrust.
Aashay opens the family’s eyes to a world where people meet and interact in person outside the rules. The prospect holds both interest and fear as they contemplate the possibility of stepping outside the safe boundaries they’ve lived within for so long. In fact, their trip out to a clandestine fair reveals pretty much what you would expect: there are both things to be gained and there are risks. For the most part, it’s unclear whether the people they encounter are to be trusted or not and what their motives are for being welcoming, but what does become apparent is that all these people are there for different reasons, and there is not one guiding force uniting them. It’s just another way of doing life in the harsh reality they live in. If there is danger in it, the danger ultimately is not due to the people they encounter there or the fact that the fair is technically illegal, but simply in being more exposed than they have been before.
There is a twist at the end; it’s neither predictable nor a major surprise. You get the feeling that the author could have chosen to end the book in one of several ways. Not all the questions are answered, but most of them probably didn’t need to be. I appreciated that there is some closure, that you do end up knowing who was and who wasn’t to be trusted. I’m not sure that’s a realistic outcome in this scenario, but it’s a nice change.
There’s one issue in particular addressed in this book that I’d like to look into further, around entitlement to children. It’s an unusual feature of this dystopia that infertility is wide-spread, and children are a rare commodity. Child abduction and trafficking flourish because of the longing many have for a family of their own rather than for the purpose of exploitation, which means that the attraction strangers show to little Lucia is concerning for a very different reason that it would be to us today.
In such a context, Lucia’s adoption by a family who already had children of their own walks a difficult line between the admirable, in rescuing and caring for an abandoned child, and the selfish, in taking for themselves what so many others wanted to have. When questions are raised about who Lucia’s birth family could be, the Polenskys’ instinct is to run, ostensibly to protect her, but also to protect themselves from being exposed as imposter parents and from losing her.
Although it isn’t yet so extreme, the place of children in our society has changed a lot over a few decades. It’s not that long since having children was a necessity to parents who needed to ensure an income and support for themselves in their old age, or simply an unavoidable reality in the days before contraception. Today, with reliable contraception and varied fertility treatments, children are seen as a lifestyle choice and as a luxury that many feel they cannot afford.
Neither of these approaches are completely unselfish – nor should they be, since children deserve to be wanted. Sometimes, though, the degree of choice we have over how, when and what children we will have can be unsettling. How do we ensure that we continue to value our children without turning them into a commodity? I haven’t reached any answers, nor does the novel provide any, but it is a question we would do well not to ignore if we want to make sure our children continue to be welcomed, wanted and treated with respect just as they are.