Thursday, 24 October 2019
Stillicide by Cynan Jones
This latest work from Cynan Jones is something a little different - a series of self-contained but linked short stories set in the (probably not so far off) future. A future where weather patterns have changed; despite almost constant summer rain, water is in short supply. No more long luxurious baths, not even a quick shower in the morning or even flushing loos! Supplying London with water has become a major undertaking. Pipes no longer feed it to the city, instead it's transported from distant reservoirs by the Water Train, but the service is increasingly under threat of sabotage. As an alternative, a huge Ice Dock is to be built - icebergs towed south to it, and their melt water collected - but construction work will displace more of the population that originally planned for, and people are taking to the streets to protest.
Against this grim backdrop the reader follows people going about their lives - a journalist obsessed with his search for a big scoop, an elderly man facing death, a woman persuaded by nature's beauty that there must be more to life that her dull relationship with her husband, young boys playing with a dog in the rubble of waste ground, and Branner (the main character, if the collection can be said to have one), a police marksman protecting the Water Train, his thoughts dodging back and forth to when he first met his wife, to his shock and disbelief on hearing her terminal diagnosis, to how he can attempt to go on without her. Within the stories, they change positions, reappearing in different roles - the central character of one becoming a bit-player or walk-on part in another - so that, although each section reads as a standalone piece, there's a underlying cohesion between them forming a greater story.
This isn't just a story of doom and gloom. Despite the bleak man-made conditions, nature is showing its resilience, its capacity to take hold and flourish in even the most inhospitable places, reclaiming waste ground and construction sites. People too are trying to improve their lot with rooftop allotments and small 'new-farms'; a personal way to overcome shortages from the 'mass-produced' sector.
It's all brought to life with Jones' familiar precision, his attention to detail, and ability to get under his characters' skin - focusing on the small things of life to build an image of the whole. Butterflies dancing in the park, the shape left as a bird darts away, the feel of limpets being prised from the rock, or the guts spilling out of a fish.
It's breath-catching, heart-wrenching, stunning. If you haven't discovered Jones' work yet, then do; you're missing a treat. And don't anyone try telling me that dystopian fiction can't be literary
Although the concept had been mulling around in the author's mind for a while, it was a commission from Radio 4 which brought it to life. If you prefer to listen rather than read you can still (October 2019) find it online
Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Granta Books
Genre - Adult literary fiction, dystopian