BBy making the decision to have a child without official permission, Whitney and Aina are breaking the law. When their crime is discovered, they become social outcasts, sentenced to serve a 12-year exile sentence on a remote northern island. On the farm, they must fend for themselves and learn the art of surviving in a hostile landscape. They are aided in their endeavor by an annual drop in essential supplies, as well as the hope that once the 12 years are up they can be allowed to return home.
Their punishment is made harsher by the fact that poisonous spores from melting permafrost have been released into the atmosphere; anyone spending time in this part of the world must take prophylactic pills every eight hours to stay alive. These are dispensed via an automated “pill clock”, activated by the designated user’s thumbprint, effectively keeping the disbelievers tethered to their place of exile.
As Whitney and Aina near the end of their sentences, Whitney becomes increasingly obsessed with the need to “show loyalty” in order to get parole. Aina, on the other hand, began to suspect that this promise of freedom was false all along. She desperately seeks to know the fate of their son, Max, and fears that her husband is keeping this information to himself.
Dystopias in which the state has taken control of women’s bodies are everywhere, from Sophie Mackintosh’s Blue Ticket to Christina Dalcher’s Vox and Joanne Ramos’ The Farm. The influence of The Handmaid’s Tale is clear, though new writers weren’t always as adept as Margaret Atwood at weaving a believable future from current events.
In his first novel, Tom Watson seems less interested in the larger political and social reality of his world than in the mundane details of the characters’ lives and the gloom of the landscape they inhabit, the emotional impasse that exists between them at the aftermath of the traumatic severance of their previous existence. His use of language is nuanced and sensitive, with landscape writing being particularly sensory. His imagining of the island’s sparse and cold beauty, along with the exiles’ thwarted attempts to make creative sense of both their destiny and their surroundings, should make for an engrossing and memorable reading experience.
But while the underlying mystery and sense of menace are enough to keep us engaged and turning the pages, the narrative eventually becomes too reliant on deliberate withholding of information. Like Whitney and Aina are hiding secrets from each other, Watson is hiding secrets from us. The cultural references – Giacometti, Copenhagen, the Vikings – point to a world that is clearly ours, and a backdrop of accelerating climate change suggests the narrative is set in the near future. There are vague mentions of dwindling resources and weather events, of a population in crisis. However, these avenues remain unexplored. Readers’ reaction to this novel will depend on how prepared they are to tolerate the vagueness that accumulates around the facts.
The finer details of the novel are made confusing by the same lack of justification. Whitney and Aina and their old friends seem to remember a time before the encroaching restrictions that came to determine their lives and their future, but they remain curiously, almost resolutely passive. No one discusses the past, not even in secret. Whitney’s obedience to the regime is particularly disconcerting, especially in that it was not scrutinized at all. Again, it’s as if the author has come to rely on obfuscation for effect; things are the way they are, not for a real reason but “just because”.
There will be readers who react so strongly to Watson’s transparent prose, to the curiously soothing strangeness of his world, that they can put aside the trivial question of cause and effect. For this reader, at least, the vastness and profusion of plot holes and the relentlessly accelerating illogicality that governs the final quarter of the novel blows away any necessary suspension of disbelief. There’s no doubting Watson’s talent at the sentence level, but his lack of rigor around core ideas left me frustrated and unconvinced.