Review: “Then” by Julie Myerson
I read this book almost accidentally, since my partner picked it up in a 3-for-2 offer. Still, the premise held enough of a fantasy / sci-fi edge to get me interested. Here’s the synopsis from the publisher’s website;
It was 9.22, the moment when everything stopped. First there was the burning air, then came the darkness, the fire, and finally the frost.
Now, in a frozen, wasted London, a woman – uncertain even of her own name – is fighting to stay alive. Along with a small group of fellow survivors, she takes refuge in an abandoned skyscraper in what was once the financial centre. But spectres stalk the empty offices and endless corridors, and soon visions of a forgotten world emerge, a world of broken love and betrayal, and horrific, shocking mercies – a world more traumatic even than the desolate present.
Then is a novel of singular invention and bravery. With it, Julie Myerson has created an echo chamber of the heartbreaking and the terrifying, and an enduring apocalyptic vision.
From A Reader’s Perspective
I read the whole thing in pretty much two sittings, which says a lot. You really get a feel for the desolation and loneliness of her post-apocalyptic London. No explanation is offered for the disaster, and none is required because really the main thrust of the story is its female protagonist. I won’t name her because you don’t find our her name until probably two-thirds of the way through. Somehow it’s not relevant until them, and it wasn’t until I found out her name that I realised I didn’t know it.
There are two strands to the story – the protagonist’s life before and after the disaster. Myerson skilfully brings both these threads together as the book moves inexorably towards its conclusion. It starts off with a linear structure, but that starts to break apart as things progress, echoing the protagonist’s fragile mind and the way in which her memories drag her back to pre-disaster times, or even mingle with the present.
Despite the confusion this brings to the reader, it works to underpin her situation, helped by the straightforward but compelling writing style. Through the tangle of lost and found memories, the reader discovers the protagonist’s heart-breaking story pretty much as she does. The book climaxes with the real tragedy of her life, brought about by the disaster but essentially the product of a mother’s sheer desperation.
I was left feeling pretty unsettled by this book. I don’t think it’s the sort of novel that you can enjoy per se, but I felt compelled to read the whole thing through.
From A Writer’s Perspective
This book doesn’t employ quotation marks for speech. Not a single one. All the “said”s are there, just not the quotes. This is initially rather strange, but you soon get past that and see how it has the effect of weaving speech, thought and action into a single continuum. When it becomes apparent that the protagonist is essentially under siege by her own mind, the effect is enhanced significantly, making the reader (or at least me) feel pretty firmly embedded in the protagonist’s head. This tees you up for maximum effect during the emotionally charged scenes later in the book.
Now, that doesn’t mean that I’d recommend the technique. I haven’t read any other Myerson so don’t know if she’s done it before, but I can imagine it getting annoying in other books. I suppose if the story will support it and it helps, rather than hinders, then fair enough. I don’t expect I’ll try it anytime soon—I personally prefer italics for though segments.
The non-linear style of this book works because it reflects how the character is experiencing the world. Although you could call it flashback, it’s not as simple as that. Again, his could easily have become just confusing, but Myerson keeps everything working in concert, despite the disjointedness of it. It’s quite a feat.
I did almost think that there was a shade little too much ‘What? / You know what’ in the dialogue, but given the character’s memory loss, Myerson gets away with it. The dialogue is never laboured, so actually such lines do feel like real speech.
Overall, the book blends some potentially troublesome mechanics and meshes them expertly together. It’s a great example of how to do the above things well.