Author: Julie Myerson
Genre: Apocalyptic /Survival/Thriller
Review: Julie Myerson’s latest novel, Then, describes a near-future dystopia in which an unexplained apocalyptic event has plunged London, and, presumably, the world, into an icy, desolate no-man’s-land. We follow the narrator, a nameless, bewildered woman, and her small gang of fellow-survivors, as she struggles to stay alive, to remember what happened to her, and to distinguish reality from a series of frighteningly realistic hallucinations.
Or something like that, anyway.
It’s hard to summarize Then without dropping major spoilers, because the strength of the book lies in its nightmarish uncertainty – the narrator’s and the readers’ confusion about the characters’ identities, histories and relationships, the order of events and the reality of those events. The narrator is camping out in an abandoned office block with a strange man and a trio of teenagers, and she doesn’t know how she got there, how she knows them, or where she, or they, came from.
Two different realities seem to be colliding and as she tries to figure out how to manage them, her memory starts to return and the full horror of her situation returns with it. The jacket blurb describes the book as an ‘echo chamber of the heartbreaking and the terrifying’, and I think this captures the reading experience pretty well – images and scenes and dialogue bounce back and forth as the narrator tries to regain control of her life, each one contradicting the next in a cacophony of horrific and heart-breaking half-forgotten instances.
I haven’t read Julie Myerson before, so I couldn’t say how Then stands up to her previous work. I can toss out a handful of comparisons, though: this is The Road crossed with The Shining; Don’t Look Now meets The Others. Memories and ghosts and confused identities and creepy, empty buildings; snow falling over a scorched landscape; recurring, disturbing images of dead children – it’s a pretty chilling vision of a disaster zone seen through the eyes of a traumatised survivor. And the very slow revelation of that trauma escalates the horror of the book to an almost unbearable pitch. Stylistically, though, it’s nothing like either Cormac McCarthy or Stephen King, whom I think would probably be two of the more obvious checkpoints; the language is pared down and almost staccato, and Myerson uses the page well, spacing out her dialogue and descriptions to mimic the hesitant reactions and damaged mind of her broken narrator.
The plot develops slowly – I’d say almost too slowly – and the short, almost timeless scenes in the office building work very well, mimicking the dislocation that the narrator feels in this new, awful world she’s found herself inhabiting. If I were to offer a criticism, it would be that Myerson pushes the deliberate confusion a little too far – at the end I was still left a little unsure where one or two narrative threads tied into the whole, though the flipside of that is that I was tempted to start reading over again, to see how it stood up once I’d grasped the overall view. So that’s good.
What else? Myerson’s portrayal of love – both sexual and parental – is astute, and there’s an interesting parallel to be drawn between the traumas of childbirth and infidelity and that of global meltdown. The actions that rip the narrator’s personal world apart coincide with the destruction of the external world – themes that Joanna Kavenna discussed in an interview here not so long ago.
It’s a difficult read – the plot is very confusing most of the way through. If you’re left scratching your head angrily after David Lynch films, you might well have the same reaction here. I found myself scribbling notes as I read, to try and help figure things out. And it really is horrific – the more tender-hearted readers might find the last few chapters very hard to digest. But other than that, thumbs up! Bleak, unrelenting and utterly hopeless – one of the most memorable disaster stories I’ve come across in ages.
Buy it here: