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Jacqui L'Ange

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Apocalypse Now: A Review of Then by Julie Myerson

ThenThere are two tricky things about reviewing Then. The first is that the story is so spoiler-prone it’s hard to say anything substantive about it without giving key plot twists away.

The second is that urging people to read it is to submit them to a harrowing experience. This book is bleak, brutal, devastating – and utterly unputdownable.

Sometime in the middle of summer, the temperature drops so low that animals bite off their own tails and small birds come falling down out of the sky.

How do you walk away from a first line like that?

Like all the best post-apocalyptic fiction, the book’s future premise is just close enough, just imaginable enough, to infuse a reading of it with a real sense of foreboding.

The setting is London, turned suddenly from quotidian to nightmarish as a fresh February day grows hellishly hot before it freezes over. The cause is unspecified – seismic, nuclear, a sun flare or some climactic tipping point – but its aftermath is unstintingly detailed. Myerson’s descriptions are evocative, and often horrifyingly beautiful.

All communication is down. All transport is stopped. Savage stragglers range around a looted city of broken storefronts (such survivalist self-service less unimaginable now than it might have been pre-riots, when Myerson wrote this book).

The reader wakes into the narrator’s nightmare as she herself does, over and over, experiencing the horror of her immediate surroundings with a sense of startled confusion. She does not remember who she is, or how she came to be hiding out with a small band of survivors, on the 16th floor of a high rise in what was once London’s financial district.

This is trauma amnesia at its most chilling.

She has to be repeatedly reminded who she is with: teenagers Sophie and Ted, disaffected even in these vulnerable times; changeable Matthew – she cannot get a handle on him, or her tender-violent impulses toward him; Graham in his filthy suit, who seems more than any of them to have once belonged there.

There is no heat, no lights, little food. The lifts don’t work. They use the side entrance to remain undetected.

Our narrator spends her time wandering the building, and the ravaged streets outside it, searching, aimless. Her perceptions are vivid and hallucinatory, straddling the line between literal and psychological, exterior and interior. The obvious comparison is to McCarthy’s The Road – but this wanderer doesn’t have the comfort of family to keep her going. She has no idea whether she ever had one.

Gradually she begins to remember things, and as her history is divulged to her, so it comes to the reader. The book’s skilful structuring, its slow reveal, is one of its greatest strengths.

Another is the segue between the outer and inner worlds as the narrator wanders with no sense of self or time or purpose. As she begins to put together what happened to her in the days and months leading up to the event, we realise that the seismic events in her personal life were enough to cause a psychic apocalypse – a devastation of internal landscape so thorough that the narrator’s desire to keep a grip on her world could conceivably have come to an end.

Myerson weathered intense controversy with her last book, The Lost Child. Her project to document the life of a 19th century girl was hijacked by her own personal circumstances, and she ended up paralleling details of her teenage son’s drug abuse, and the family’s tough-love response to it. The media hounds bayed for her blood, accusing her of serving her son up as publicity fodder for her literary career.

All this is important only in as much as it might inform Then, a work of fiction which is bleakly affecting in a way only someone who has experienced extreme personal upheaval can write it.

  • Catch Jacqui L’Ange in conversation with Julie Myerson at the Open Book Festival on Friday 23 September

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