Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Review: Then by Julie Myerson

I suppose, for all the glamour and excitement promised by Apocalypse narratives dating back to Ragnarok and Revelations, it is probably more realistic to assume that the last days will be bewildering yet bleak, then rather boring, before finally becoming deeply depressing.  If she was working on that model, Julie Myerson’s Then is a spectacular success.

I approached the novel with high expectations – it was being promoted at Blackwell’s, and its cover is crammed with good reviews, not least ‘writing that takes your breath away’, courtesy of the Sunday Express.  At the risk of sounding simply contrary, I found almost nothing to enjoy in a novel that’s only defence against misery was opacity.

It’s hard to describe the plot, such as it is, without revealing what might be called spoilers; the first hundred or so pages leave us in post-apocalyptic London in the unhelpful hands of a narrator who has not only lost her long-term memory, but also does not seem aware of what is happening in the ‘present’.  Such mystery is presumably intended to draw us in, but instead gives us no credible character to sympathise or engage with, and the clichéd landscape of a broken city (filled, to no discernable purpose, with a litany of named chain shops) is incapable of filling this gap.

It is, I suppose, to Myerson’s credit that she evades the clichés of the apocalypse genre by deploying an alternative system of meaning – as the blurb promises the recovery of her memory leads to a parallel personal apocalypse.  The flashback scenes which come to dominate the second half of the book do show a skilful touch, particularly with the interaction of two older children, but the narrative never bothers to make sense of itself, with incidents described multiple times in different ways, and no logical explanation of those opening hundred pages.  Perhaps this is supposed to represent the fractured and impossible nature of a broken world.  To me, it suggests lazy storytelling.

It would be unfair to deny there are some positives to the book.  Myerson has a very readable style, although needless devices such as the omission of speech-marks are slightly grating.  Once she bothers to create characters the interest in the story grows, but it never recovers from those painfully inaccessible opening chapters, and the eventually-named heroine recovers only memory, as opposed to personality.  The ending, when it finally comes, is too incomprehensible to be moving, yet manages to still be deeply depressing.

Overall then, the only reason I can think to recommend reading this book is to try and work out what the mainstream reviewers saw in it.  It lacks both charm and logic, style and story, and you cannot fail to leave it with a pervading sense of befuddled dismay.

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