England experienced a civil war and a Revolution, both in the seventeenth century. Each profoundly affected the English way of life: the civil war through violence, and the Revolution through a change in the power of the monarchy and modification of its succession formula to keep it out of Catholic hands, a change that was in effect until 2011. We do not like to think about it, but most of us with a knowledge of 20th century and early 21st century history have an understanding of the fragility of democracy and the strange, cultish, and often violent movements that threaten to replace it. In Helen Smith's dark book, parliamentary democracy has been replaced by an ideology of victimization that has turned strangely upon itself. A rise in global terrorism has resulted in the borders being sealed, and secret police lurking everywhere. Children are kept from unrelated adults (such as teachers) out of fear of pedophilia, and, in a bizarre sort of Stockholm syndrome, women are veiled and similarly restricted out of fear of rape. It seems to be the nationwide implementation of the signs you see outside of theatres: "Strobe lights, haze, cigarette smoke (herbal or tobacco) will be used during this performance,” and then some. Perhaps to tell themselves that they are indeed enlightened, people avoid meat (the author takes pains to mention that this includes human flesh) and stick to fish and vegetables. I did wonder why home schooling wasn't a big cottage industry, and how men were educated without using books. Anyway, lucky are the folks who can make it into their thirties or forties before getting whisked off by “the authorities,” never to be seen again.
A large bureaucracy includes various ministries and Inspectors, including Inspector of Cats, Inspector of Hedgerows & Grass Verges, and Inspector of Miracles. Lucas, a man in his twenties, is said Miracle Inspector. He keeps busy driving around London in his government car examining pieces of toast that are alleged to bear the likeness of Jesus, etc. His wife Angela is stuck in the house with just a few scrounged encyclopedia volumes to peruse. They share a lot of unspoken frustrations, but actually give voice to the idea of escaping to Cornwall, outside of the borders that have been set up. They befriend a woman, Maureen, who used to be a newscaster, and her special-needs child, Christina, whose miraculousness is hidden behind an enigmatic smile. After a friend of the family, Jesmond, is murdered by Nihilists following a poetry performance and Lucas is taken into custody when someone gets wind of a trip to Cornwall, Angela, Maureen, and Christina are left to hoof it out of authoritarian England. To their horror, all the places they seek refuge are just as bad: in the town of Clough they are expected to become sex workers, and at a back-to-the-land feminist commune of sorts they are exposed to magical thinking and a bloody ritual that does nothing to protect them from marauding men and escaped zoo animals. They learn to avoid the big trucks full of UN and other NGO personnel who make a big show of doing nothing. When Maureen disappears, Angela learns to assume the worst about everybody, and is left crossing the moors with Christina.
Could England, or America, become like Syria? England, while having no written Constitution, does have the Magna Carta and a Bill of Rights. The US obviously has both. The book seems to oscillate between blaming the heightened fear of terrorism and its usual anodyne, the attenuation of individual liberties, and blaming the victimhood felt by those who see every bright light, every peanut, every hug by a friend as a threat. The writing is beautiful, as Smith has shown in Alison Wonderland and Being Light. Other reviewers have characterized this book as a comedy, but I see no way out of its pessimism. Fear is our worst enemy. How do we wage war upon it without waging war upon ourselves?