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We are the past

Julie Myerson’s eighth novel is told by a woman who roams the City of London after an unspecified apocalypse (no power, bad weather).

4 June 2011

12:00 AM

4 June 2011

12:00 AM

Then Julie Myerson

Cape, pp.296, 12.99

Julie Myerson’s eighth novel is told by a woman who roams the City of London after an unspecified apocalypse (no power, bad weather).

Julie Myerson’s eighth novel is told by a woman who roams the City of London after an unspecified apocalypse (no power, bad weather). The Monument is rubble, Tower Bridge has ‘long gone’ and scavengers are chopping fingers off frozen bodies to snatch rings. Our narrator can’t remember much — two thirds of the book pass before we find out her name is Izzy — but a couple of randy fellow vagrants claim to know her, and some children say she’s their mum. By the time one of them ‘lifts off the ground and comes flying through the air’ — and vanishes — we’re not sure what to believe.

The mood is grave, the prose a mix of word-painting (aircraft leave ‘chalk lines’ in the sky; a mouldy corpse has hands like ‘bunches of black bananas’) and clipped, quoteless speech straight out of Then’s urtext, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road:


So is it OK? she says.
Is what OK?
Has he gone?
Has who gone?

Izzy’s amnesia licences a lot of talk like this. She finds urban debris — such as a ‘hoarding with the words T Mobile visible on it’ — particularly mysterious. ‘That means nothing,’ says one of her ghostly brood. ‘It’s just an ad. Don’t you remember, there were loads of those? They were absolutely everywhere’. The protagonist’s alienated gaze comes to seem a Trojan horse for the view that modern life is rubbish: a rare sunny afternoon allows her to imagine that Londoners are ‘still going about their business … taking money out of holes in the wall and carrying bags of things from place to place’.

Eventually we learn that Izzy was once a married mother of four with a fish pond and a vegetable patch, a downstairs wall knocked through and a pack of temazepam in the bathroom cabinet. Nine months or so before the end of days, she got drunk with her ‘oldest, dearest friend … Without thinking, I put my head in his lap’. It could be a letter to Mariella Frostrup; the upshot is a foetus that isn’t her husband’s.

Thus does apocalypse become a metaphor for marital strife, a good idea with a skewed execution. Myerson ends up asking us to take sides, which isn’t easy in a novel without a character worthy of the name. All we know about Izzy’s husband, more or less, is that he buys ‘big fat expensive art books he never looked at’ and has a ‘golf partner, Jock’. Against this outline of stuffed-shirt dimwittery we have a rival so ardent he’s ready to commit suicide just because a roadblock stops him chasing Izzy when they glumly part company after a rooftop romp.

I bet Then does well in spite of such silliness. Metropolitan hanky-panky plus doomsday sci-fi is a shrewd splice, and it does linger: it’ll be a while before I forget the scene where Izzy breaks out the temazepam in a roomful of scared kids, the bloody placenta from her newborn baby in a baking dish on the kitchen counter, the neighbours’ homes razed by fireballs.


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