Tuesday 1 November 2016

Recommendation: Lost Girl by Adam Nevill

Horror is perhaps the most subjective literary genre to judge, because in the end it comes down to how the book emotionally affected you. Did it scare me? Did it creep me out; did its shadow linger after I closed the pages? I think most readers of the horrific, the weird, and the strange would admit that those books & stories which most scared them did so in part due to qualities outside the book. Because the books that really stay with us are those that play on our existing phobias, bugbears, and neuroses.

So it was with me and Adam Nevill's Lost Girl.

Lost Girl takes place in a near-future England, slowly collapsing as climate-change wreaks havoc across the globe and millions of displaced people move northward. Within this grim setting, Nevill tells the story of a character known only as 'the father' on a quest to find his missing daughter, who was snatched two years earlier. In the future depicted here, a single missing child is small-beans to the overworked authorities, and the father must employ his own methods to track down those who abducted his child: methods which increase in violence even as his quest appears more and more hopeless.

Part of the reason this novel had such a powerful effect on me is surely because I'm a relatively new father myself; the parts of the book describing the daughter's abduction, the father's descent into grief, pain and despair, triggered no end of 'what if' scenarios in my head. (And given how vivid & starkly the father's plight is described, I'm sure this was the case for the author too.) Indeed, this is a subject matter that, even before was a father, could induce a sickly panic in me as a reader; I remember similarly feelings of panic reading Ian McEwan's The Child In Time.

But more than that, I've always been fascinated and appalled by climate change. I remember studying it at university, twenty years ago now, and while it was a horrifying concept then it seemed far away enough that we would do something about it. Obviously. Why wouldn't we? But now it's decades later, we've done comparatively little, and it really is the last chance saloon. The idea of runaway global warming has a different emotion intensity now, and not just because it's that much closer. It's because it no longer feels like something the previous generation has done to me, but something I've colluded in doing to my daughter's generation. Nevill's central plot, about a father trying and failing to protect his child, is of course the perfect metaphor for his wider theme.

The book's depiction of the England of tomorrow is frightening in its plausibility. It's a society still clinging to its old ways, its old shape; the police, politicians, inner cities, countryside, class division, motorways and other familiar features of British life all still present. But it's an England far hotter, overrun by criminal gangs, struggling with mass immigration, infectious diseases and the fear of imminent collapse. It's a place being reshaped not by a single apocalyptic event but by the slow accumulation of entropy and disaster. (The fate of other countries, the book suggests, has not been so kind.) It's a grimly realistic view of what life in the face of slow-motion environmental collapse will actually be like. And of course, like all depictions of the future, it's also a depiction of how we live now. Although it was released over a year ago, it's hard not to see in the world of Lost Girl a distorted and magnified version of our current Brexit small-minded idiocy.

The obvious book to compare Lost Girl to is Cormac McCarthy's masterpiece The Road; it's a testament to Nevill's skill as a novelist that Lost Girl comes out well from that comparison. Taut, brutal, violent, scary (but with only the merest hint of the supernatural), thought-provoking, emotionally-wrenching and possibly prophetic, it's a remarkable piece of work. It's a novel that, even after a single reading, I know will stay with me, haunting me with the fear that my daughter will grow up into the world it depicts. With the fear that if she does, it will be because I (and all of us) failed her and allowed her to become lost.

Lost Girl (UK | US)

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