Friday, 12 September 2014

Things We Didn't See Coming, by Steven Amsterdam

Things We Didn't See Coming starts with the 9 year old narrator being hastily packed into his parents' car on New Year Eve 1999, fleeing the disaster that his father is sure will come. Everybody else seems to be overlooking impending doom and celebrating as usual. They alight at his Grandparents' house and he sneaks off at midnight to be with his evidently quite paranoid father in the woods.

The story skips forward some years into a changed landscape. The urban and rural communities are segregated, each with their own problems and struggles. When the narrator's mentally ill, bedridden Grandma suddenly comes to her senses one day, he takes her and Grandpa on a Sunday drive, talking their way into the countryside. He teaches them to steal, they live a lifetime in a day and he leaves alone...

The narrative continues in this fashion, breaking off for years at a time and rejoining the narrator at some undisclosed year, in some undisclosed area of what was once probably England. He utilises the skills gained through his modest criminal record; thievery, deceit, selfishness, to survive a varying wasteland of perils. Flooding, drought, some sort of corrosive rain, pollutants and bad air, plagues, disease and hunger. Each time he seems to have a different companion, a different job and a different danger to face. He lives (at different times) a nomadic life of scavenging, a criminal life of opportunistic theft and a semi-settled one in sort of new-age hippie alternative medicines community that believes in the power of nature to heal.

The last section that sees the narrator guiding terminally ill and cancer riddled patients on around the world experience tours particularly stood out to me. The author (as palliative care nurse) has done an incredible job of detailing the care of end of life patients. I think these fleeting characters were in a way much more real than the narrator. They came across simply as a mess of contradictions- they're happy to be spending their final days entertained, but they complain about the activities. They grumble about little things and ignore what's killing them. They're full of camaraderie and sadness and exhilaration living against the clock. The first and the last chapters definitely represented the best of the author's prose and depth.

Whilst I liked this novel, I never really felt like I got to know the narrator or understood what the book was trying to do or say. The fragmented, jumpy timeline is easy enough to follow, but it's the absolute lack of any geographical consistency that's a little disorientating. Every five years the world seems to change completely. New governments, new improvement schemes, new landscape, new agendas and new expectations. The world doesn't seem to gradually improve, nor decline...Each chapter opens on a completely different scene. Maybe that's the point, I don't know. Maybe the world can change as much as it cares to- people will always be the same. Maybe we a the reader are supposed to feel as adrift and as unattached as the narrator.

I felt it was quite unusual as far as Apocalypse scenario novels go. We never find out the nature of the disaster. We never experience the panic and the social collapse that follows. There's no group of survivors fighting the elements and the odds to rebuild a safe haven. There's none of that. It's just one guy, turning up all over the place and getting by.

It's an odd one, with an unusual structure and a dreamy style. It reminded me of what an entire person worth of memory must look like, written down. Bits that you remember vividly, wooly bits- whole years where you can't remember anything of note. Bits you'd rather not remember. Worth a read simply for its uniqueness.

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