As the dominoes continue their haphazard topple in the wake of the EU Referendum, as a blowhard struts vaingloriously in the Oval Office, and as right-wing populism slithers out of its bunker and back into the daylight, it’s difficult to discount the disquieting suspicion that these are dystopian times.
It’s not as though the world wasn’t warned. From the printed pages of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s post-Revolutionary caveat We, via the streamed admonition of Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale (with Margaret Atwood’s literary original about to birth a sequel), fiction has been urgent in its extrapolations for the best part of a century, fearful of the worst.
To its credit, The Disappeared, Amy Lord’s hand grenade of a debut novel, is sure enough of itself to declare its more obvious predecessors, listing them among the most prominent of the titles removed from the libraries of her grave new world. Of course, their ghosts haunt her landscapes but when incinerated volumes evoke Fahrenheit 451 or the graffiti of revolt recalls Alan Moore’s V For Vendetta, their acknowledgement appropriates them without seeming pilfered. Indeed, the one spirit that goes unnamed is perhaps the most unlikely, that of Edith Nesbit’s The Railway Children.
Clara Winter’s ‘daddy’ is the first of the story’s disappeared, and the consequences of his brutal removal and unresolved absence shape the origami-like structure by which the plot first reveals its symmetries, and then, like a bloom as darkness descends, folds in upon itself.
The Winter family, broken and re-set by the pre-emptive thuggery of the First General’s regime, serve not only as the heart of the novel, but their fault-lines are a miniature for the fissures in their England’s wider society. Insinuating himself into their home is Clara’s wicked stepfather, Darius, highly ranked in The Authorisation Bureau’s open secret police force. In the compromises which afford him his place, in the jealousies he both provokes and enacts, and in his all-too-human inhumanity, it’s easy to discern how the personal informs the political.
Nevertheless, Lord maintains a pleasing disinclination to didacticism. For all that the dice of sympathy are loaded in Clara’s favour, her decisions – and still more so those of the Lumière insurgents with whom she becomes aligned – are tainted at times with a like moral ambiguity to the oppression they oppose. Still more intriguingly, in mirroring Clara’s inner life with that of her father’s usurper, Lord places the reader deep enough inside The Authorisation Bureau to feel the discomfort of empathy with one of its faithful, and to foster – if not complicity – then an incipient investment in the hope of Darius’s redemption.
Of course, this New England is a hair’s breadth away from its factual counterpart; its subjects having learned to blind themselves to its brutalities, perhaps, through averting their gazes from the displaced of Piccadilly Gardens, the most visible tip of austerity’s iceberg.
If a dystopia speaks inevitably of its own time and place, it succumbs to fatalism if it fails to offer tapers to light the way beyond it. Lord’s achievement is to lend plausibility and emotional heft to the consoling notion that culture itself can be an act of resistance. Placed among the power cuts and blackouts which, in their evocation of the 1970s, understatedly suggest that authoritarianism is always regressive, Clara’s underground reading group orating Nineteen Eighty-Four is undeniably stirring; a gag being loosened, a blindfold cast aside.
For so long as the self-interest of those who would be powerful at the expense of others ensures that dystopias are even now being built in plain sight, their literary counterparts will remain a necessity; to re-sensitise the desensitised, by coercing the reader into looking anew, to kindle the hope that, in the sloganeering of Lord’s flawed revolutionaries, “Freedom will be ours.”
The Disappeared by Amy Lord is published by Unbound and available to buy now.