Then by Julie Myerson – review

Julie Myerson's novel is a brutal vision of a post-apocalyptic city

Much of Julie Myerson's writing, from Sleepwalking onwards, is interested in families broken by the sin or neglect of a mother with whom the reader is asked to sympathise. The geographical and historical settings vary – the Victorian London of Laura Blundy, modern Paris in The Story of You – but the narrator haunted by her failures as wife and mother appears in various guises.

In some ways, Then is different. It's set in the near future, or perhaps – if the teenagers' argot is a barometer – in an alternative present, a post-apocalyptic London where frozen bodies lie piled on icy streets in front of looted and burnt-out buildings in scenes reminiscent of wartime Leningrad in Helen Dunmore's The Siege. The exact nature of the catastrophe is unclear: one February morning, we learn, the temperature soared until garden ponds boiled so that "the [gold]fish bobbed, some of them split right open, the edges curling back as if on a hot grill". And then the ice age sets in. We meet the narrator walking the streets of the city, having forgotten everything about herself and her previous life, and follow her to the empty office block where she lives with people she may or may not remember and some other presences who may or may not be "real". The story of how she came to be there unfurls through fragmented flashbacks that leave a finely judged proportion of narrative work to the reader.

First-person narrators are almost by definition unreliable, and that's part of the pleasure for readers. But an amnesiac, nameless first-person narrator removed from her social and domestic context is a challenge, even before we begin to witness her apparently psychotic behaviour. For the first part of the book, the narrator repeatedly injures a young boy on a whim and feels no regret when others remind her of what she has done. She returns to the office block to find the child lying at the bottom of the stairs: "And there's a nasty ripening bruise on the kid's head. And maybe a cut as well." Her companions are waiting for her to apologise for throwing the child down the stairs: "Am I sorry? Am I? I try to think about what sorry might feel like and whether or not it's in my mind right now. Sorry. No, I do not think that sorry will come." This is not – until much later - a character with whom it might be possible to identify.

The writing is sparse, much of it dialogue. No metaphors, few similes, nothing to sketch an aesthetic underpinning for the narrator's bare reportage, no reaching for common ground. The curt, factual sentences give an effective sense of a damaged and dysfunctional mind, but they repel emotional engagement with the novel and offer no context for an intolerable situation. Even at the end, when we understand more about the narrator's trauma, her voice remains cold; it's the plot, not the character, that calls for empathy.

Nothing much happens in the novel's present tense, certainly nothing that hasn't already been done by Dunmore or by Cormac McCarthy in The Road. There are some nice touches – chocolate money prized more highly than banknotes, the narrator's inability to distinguish one ruined London high street from another because the landscape "is both familiar and not familiar. A sign says All Bar One and another says HSBC and another says Lloyds" – but the makeshift means of survival in a post-apocalyptic city are not novel (and I couldn't help wondering about the water supply in a tower block with no power or heating). The Siege is partly a domestic tragedy, but it's also a book about war and power and the relationship between the individual and the state. The Road is partly about fatherhood and love, but it's also about the logical conclusion of modern capitalism. Then doesn't, I think, have such ideological interests. The real story is in the past, before "there was a sound like a blade tearing through the sky", and we don't begin to hear this story until almost halfway through the book. The final disclosure is certainly horrifying, but in the absence of a moral or historical context, Then doesn't quite make it beyond horror into catharsis.

Sarah Moss's Night Waking is published by Granta.

Sarah Moss

The GuardianTramp

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