By taking the decision to have a child without obtaining official permission, Whitney and Aina are breaking the law. When their crime is discovered they become social outcasts, condemned to serve a 12-year sentence of exile on a remote island in the north. At the croft they must fend for themselves, learning the art of survival in a hostile landscape. They are aided in their endeavour by an annual drop of essential supplies, together with the hope that once the 12 years have passed, they may be allowed to return home.
Their punishment is made harder by the fact that toxic spores from the melting permafrost have been released into the atmosphere; anyone spending time in that part of the world must take prophylactic pills at eight-hour intervals to stay alive. These are dispensed via an automated “pill clock”, activated by the thumb print of the designated user, keeping the miscreants effectively tethered to their place of exile.
As Whitney and Aina near the end of their sentence, Whitney becomes ever more obsessed by the need to “prove loyal” in order to win parole. Aina, by contrast, has begun to suspect that this promise of freedom has been bogus all along. She is desperate to learn the fate of their son, Max, and fears her husband may be keeping this knowledge to himself.
Dystopias in which the state has seized control of women’s bodies are everywhere, from Sophie Mackintosh’s Blue Ticket to Christina Dalcher’s Vox and Joanne Ramos’s The Farm. The influence of The Handmaid’s Tale is clear, though newer writers have not always been as skilful as Margaret Atwood in weaving a credible future from the stuff of now.
In his debut novel, Tom Watson seems less interested in the wider political and social reality of his world than in the mundane detail of the characters’ lives and the bleakness of the landscape they inhabit, the emotional standoff that exists between them as a result of the traumatic severing of their previous existence. His use of language is nuanced and sensitive, with landscape writing especially a sensory highlight. His imagining of the sparse and chilly beauty of the island, together with the exiles’ thwarted attempts to make creative sense of both their fate and their surroundings, should make for an engrossing and memorable reading experience.
But although the underlying mystery and sense of threat is enough to keep us engaged and turning pages, the narrative eventually becomes overreliant on the deliberate withholding of information. As Whitney and Aina keep secrets from one another, so Watson keeps secrets from us. The cultural references – Giacometti, Copenhagen, the Vikings – indicate a world that is recognisably ours, and a background of accelerating climate change suggests the narrative is taking place in the near future. There are vague mentions of diminishing resources and weather events, of a population in crisis. Yet these avenues remain unexplored. How well readers respond to this novel will depend on how far they are prepared to tolerate an accumulating fuzziness around the facts.
The novel’s finer details are made puzzling by the similar lack of a rationale. Whitney and Aina and their former friends appear to remember a time before the invasive restrictions that have come to determine their lives and futures, yet they remain curiously, almost determinedly passive. No one discusses the past, not even in secret. Whitney’s obeisance to the regime is particularly perplexing, most especially in being entirely unexamined. Once again, it is as if the author has come to rely on obfuscation to gain an effect; things are the way they are, not for any real reason but “just because”.
There will be readers who respond so strongly to Watson’s transparent prose, to the curiously lulling strangeness of his world, that they can set aside the trivial matter of cause and effect. For this reader, at least, the vastness and profusion of plot holes and the relentlessly accelerating illogic that governs the final quarter of the novel explode any such necessary suspension of disbelief. There is no doubting Watson’s talent at the sentence level, but his lack of rigour around core ideas left me frustrated and unconvinced.