|Cover by Sam Gretton|
Solaris, 9 August 2018
I'm grateful to the publishers for an advance copy of Haven via NetGalley.
Set in a shared post-apocalyptic world created by Dave Hutchinson and by Roberts, Haven is the followup to Hutchinson's Shelter (my review). It features a boy called Davy Forktongue - Shelter featured an Adam, so possibly there are author games going on here...
Davy (the character) is very much the crux of Haven. Decades after the Sisters - annihilating asteroids - impacted the Earth and destroyed civilisation, Davy lives with his mother and sisters farming on Shillingford Hill, above the swollen Thames south of Oxford. In a rather nasty, dog-eat-dog world Davy is a threat to nobody, minding his own business and especially the farm's five cows. but suddenly, it seems everyone is after him - the militaristic authorities from Guz, the former naval base on the South coast which featured in Shelter; the footsoldiers of Father John, from the North, of whom we heard less; and the mysterious, women-only society based at High Wycombe, of which we heard almost nothing.
What do they all want? Can it be related to Davy's epilepsy? Will he survive to find out? As Davy is fought over by the factions, Haven escalates into a fast-paced thriller full of action and conflict. Some of this can be pretty grim - as in Hutchinson's Shelter, it's hard to find anyone here to like (beyond Davy himself). The Sisters seemingly destroyed not only civilisation, but civilisation - the complex of values and empathy that prevents us all murdering each other. If you found Shelter - which featured an outbreak of such murders - bleak I think you'll feel the same way about Haven. Indeed, the parochial and random warfare that featured in Shelter is surpassed by a more ordered and deadly conflict in Haven (and I wish I could say that this conflict achieves something but I fear that it really doesn't).
Nevertheless there is a lot to like in Haven. Roberts tells a tight, well constructed story bringing together two quite different strands - the adventures of Davy, basically trying to get home (there and back again, perhaps...?) and a parallel series of trials listed on the rather stoic boatman, Hat, of whom I would like to have heard more. Nothing in either thread stray, nothing is lost, the most minor points proving relevant before the end.
Roberts' writing is excellent throughout, in particular his descriptions of the deep winter - puddles which "were saucers and half-moons of pure silver locked hard into the ground", "sharp blades of frost stiffened grass that broke under his feet like twigs", "Another wilderness of sedge, yellow as cream, brittle and sharp-edged as upended icicles". He can dip into a kind of Thick Of It mode (" 'Hark,' said Abigail, putting a hand to her ear, 'what is that I hear, ululating from afar? Is it the call for swear language? I do believe it fucking is! None other than the fucking shit-shouting call for sweary language!' ") He can evoke things almost poetically, beyond the literal meaning of the words ("Someone had sheathed a blade in his shoulder and by Christ it hurt. A paralallip rhythm. A paralallip. Rhythm of paralallip.") It's hard to convey by grabbing a few quotes just how much fun this book is to read for the language, the words themselves.
Of course, in a book by Roberts you also expect puns and allusions and Haven doesn't disappoint. There's a rather intense degree of wordplay ("Because he's the new messiah? The new mess-his-pants-hire? Why?"). At times it rather takes over the characters - for example this exchange between Daniel and Davy. (Read the book to find out who Daniel is).
" 'And if they don't apprehend you on the way - which, incidentally, they will if you just go stumbling down the rive gauche of the river the way you have been - why then they'll pick up up neatly in Goring town itself.'
'Reeve goes?' Davy queried."
" 'Boats are still our forte.'
'That is a lot of boats,' agreed Davy.
Daniel gave him another hard stare."
There is a sense of quick wittedness, of verbal mastery, here to Davy which Daniel seems to recognise. Davy seems to deploy some sophisticated quotes for a thirteen year old who can't read or write and has been brought up in what one might assume is an intellectually, as well as materially, impoverished culture
" 'It is a strange fate," said Davy, "that we should suffer so much fear and doubt over so small a thing.' Daniel looked at him oddly for a moment..."
Even when not quoting or playing with words, Davy can also show a maturer understanding of things than you might expect. ("I understand the emotional dynamic of my own family than a stranger." "Waste was the worst thing. The unfairness of it. The wealth of the world poured away into the dirt.")
What I think is going on here is that for most of the book, Davy acts as a kind of chorus, the representative of the author (or the reader) in this grim world. That works rather well, not least because, for much of the story, Davy is a rather passive character, done to and not doing, but mainly observing and commenting. He needs a good level of insight and language to make the experience bearable for us.
Similarly, Roberts freely employs (both in the speech of his characters and in the narration) metaphors and turns of phrase that only make sense to us but are unlikely to mean anything to the fourth, fifth or sixth post Sisters generation. One of these ("Senses working overtime") is highlighted at the start of the book - nobody understands the phrase and there are various theories about it - but most are not. So we have "You'll have to join the end of the queue" and 'Close enough... for government work", a "Morse-code under clack" to someone's speech, and so forth.
While this might seem incongruous, it really isn't. Roberts is not trying to develop post-apocalyptic language, something like Russell Hoban in Ridley Walker. he's not trying to represent how these people might really speak. Rather he's using language - even in the mouths of the protagonists - that works for us, the readers. I was reminded of Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings (perhaps one ought to assume a translation, as though Haven were derived from a kind of Red Book of the Southmarch. And indeed there is a lot of Tolkien here - we do also have "Speak friend and enter", a Gollum like follower, a reference to the Moon as a fruit taken from a silver tree, and much more besides.) By using language this was, the impact of the Sisters on society becomes more apparent, not less. Via the disconnect between a language that assumes the existence of modern technology, modern luxuries and modern conveniences and the strange, wild and deeply dangerous world it is used to describe, we see how far things have really fallen.
A specific example of this might be Hat's (the boatman's) love of smoking, something shared by the customers at an inn and described by Robertson particularly sensuous terms. Roberts makes clear that at this point in history real tobacco is an expensive and hard to come by commodity - I wonder if in reality it would simply not exist at all, but at any rate it is so hard to come by that I suspect most people would be unaware of it and unlikely to enjoy Hat's second hand smoke in the way described. So, no, perhaps not realistic - but as a way to convey how far that world is from ours, this is simply genius. (Unless of course it's another Tolkien thing.)
This is just one of the respects in which Roberts' on the nose observation makes this an absorbing read. Another is the character - I won't name then because spoilers - who achieves incredible things despite being "old" - whatever that means in this world - "People simply stop noticing you. You become a background figure, a three-legged still or an old jug..." And there is the society of the High Wycombe women, marking one path a culture might take alongside others that become intensely patriarchal, very quickly.
So, what do we have? At one level this is a grim, even heartbreaking story of a society gone savage. But it's leavened, or lifted, by that sense of author-in-the-story, of shrewd commentary, by the sense of an authorial wink, that this may be a slightly different story to the one we think we're reading. In other words it's a clever book - which I mean as undiluted praise. And, as I have said, despite the darkness, it is also often a fun book. I would strongly recommend reading (with a bit of a content waring that if you found the darkness of Shelter a bit too much, this does go to similar places).
One closing point. I actually live near Davy! Here, then, is a picture of Shillingford Hill (to the left) from across the Thames (which is among the trees in the middle). You can see what a good place this would be for Davy and his family to farm, albeit in their world the effect of the Sisters has been to cause rain and cold, in contrast to the UK's current mini heatwave... I think the nearer field would have been under icy water, but I can imagine it as one of the places Davy might have crossed a frozen river.