Monday, 8 September 2014

After Tomorrow by Gillian Cross, reviewed by Dennis Hamley

Reading and reviewing Cally Phillips’s Brand Loyalty started me thinking afresh about dystopias. Why have there been so many of them written in recent years? Why are most of them visions of generalised horror, dark fantasies which don’t seem to have any correlative in actual reality? On the other hand, why are some - like Cally’s vision of corporate power sucking people into an existence spent in a limbo of virtual reality or Bill Kirton’s Alternative Dimension, which finds glorious humour in the situation - based on an urgent vision of the logical extension of the dangerous ugliness in our society today? Is it because we are smothered by apprehension of imminent disaster? Is WB Yeats’s The Second Coming coming true again?

Surely some revelation is at hand?
…what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Well perhaps it’s here already? It might take many forms: there are so many which are plausible. But here is a young adult novel which takes an ominously possible circumstance  and develops from it a narrative based on an alarming logic which we feel on our pulses to be an all too accurate estimate of human behaviour in extremity.

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The premiss on which  After Tomorrow is based  is something which could conceivably happen tomorrow. No more nuclear holocausts, no more climatic catastrophes, no more corporate corruption (though this, in the light of Brand Loyalties, might be a moot point), just a possibility - yet one which, when we wake up each morning, we might find has happened, suddenly and disastrously, overnight. This Armageddon comes when the country’s five largest banks crash at the same time. As a result, infrastructure and law and order have broken down. Armed, desperate and unscrupulous gangs roam the land for food. Their targets are those who have selfishly hoarded food or, unselfishly, are still producing it. SCADGERS is spray-painted on their houses and they are marked out as fair game. The best hope for Scadgers is to escape as refugees to France.  An uncomfortable irony, especially as France is on the brink of going the same way.

Marty tells the story. She was only four when the crash came and didn’t understand it, except when Dad was shot as he drove a lorry loaded with potatoes to Manchester. Raiders killed Grandpa on his allotment. Mum has married again. Marty has a stepfather, Justin, and now understands the situation all too well. After a gang raid which takes all their remaining food and leaves the house trashed, they know they have to leave before France closes its borders and the rest of Europe follows them.

Their neighbour Bob has a truck and is filling it with refugees before it’s too late. Mum, Justin, Marty, little Taco and all the family leave home – and find France as unwelcoming as they feared and expected. But they survive. Their struggles make a compelling narrative. Nothing is what it seems: corruption has spread even to those they trust. There is no point of rest in this new world and any prospect of amelioration seems doomed. There is a note of hope at the end, but it is a forlorn one indeed. As in Lord of the Flies. humans in extremity revert to the savagery of self-interest. Perhaps Thomas Hobbes was right about humankind after all.

This is a timely and disturbing look at a version of the future which has uncomfortable resonances. It’s told with all of Gillian’s Cross’s wonderful narrative skill. It’s good that it’s a young adult book. We hard-bitten oldsters, made cynical by experience, understand most of this. For the younger reader, even the realisation that they could so easily become refugees, just as much as those who flee from Jihad, will be a shock. After Tomorrow is full of propositions which should bring younger readers up short as they see possibilities which they should surely be aware of. 

Gillian Cross is a young adult author of long standing and huge achievement. A Carnegie Medal winner, she knows how to construct narratives which reverberate in the mind long after the book is closed.

After Tomorrow is published by OUP in paperback. It is also available on Kindle.