by John Lanchester. Published by Faber and Faber, 2019.
We’re in Britain, in the near future – perhaps nearer than we think. And something has gone horribly wrong.
Kavanagh, the narrator, is a Defender, one of the many young people of his generation who were born after the Change and now stand conscript guard on the Wall along the British coastline, scanning the sea for invasions of Others. The beaches have been drowned, the Gulf Stream has apparently switched off, and desperate starving people from baked countries to the south constantly attack the Wall. Kavanagh resents his parents who did nothing to stop the Change and save their world. Now he stands shoulder to shoulder with other Defenders on the Wall, facing out to sea, hoping only to get through his time alive. The slightest infringement of orders extends the tour of duty; a drop in temperature means you freeze to death; letting one single Other over the Wall is punishable by being put to sea yourself.
Gradually Kavanagh learns how to survive, and forms friendships: with Cooper, Mary the cook, Shoona, the poetic Hughes and Hifa, who under her layers of androgynous clothes is small and female, and lovable. He learns to trust the Captain, one of the few Others who escaped servitude as a Helper, and is now the toughest of the Wall commanders. He learns how to get through the long cold boring hours on duty, and how to bond tightly with his comrades.
The Others attack, and are beaten back, but Cooper, Mary and Shoona are lost. Then one night the Others attack again, and this time they get over the Wall. And now Kavanagh and Hifa are put adrift in a small boat, with the barest of provisions, together with Hughes, the treacherous Captain and the Baby Politician, who despite his upper class status is also being punished with certain death at sea.
What happens next, as Kavanagh and Hifa fight the elements alone with everyone’s hand against them, is surprising and shocking. There are moments of tenderness, and in the closing passages, unexpected sanctuary and hope. Lanchester weaves in episodes reminiscent of Mad Max, and other scenes redolent of Montsarrat or MacLean’s wartime naval dramas.
This is a terrifically punchy dystopian thriller, a desperate and brusquely enlightening tale that takes the worst projections of climate change and sets them down in concrete gruesome detail. Lanchester pushes out breathlessly short sentences and uses the first person perspective throughout to present the brutal reality of being born into a ruined world without choices, watching your friends die.
And yet there is humour, comradeship, loyalty, and a kind of shining optimism here too, as Kavanagh and Hifa join together to fight on. They’re an unshakeable young couple who find there are choices after all.
The end of the book comes suddenly, and is clearly setting up a sequel. I certainly hope so. I just know Kavanagh and Hifa must – will – survive, to find their way towards a new and maybe better world.