Top positive review
A world with no chapters
on 18 December 2016
This book doesn't have any chapters, and not that many paragraphs.
That's a good starting place for a review, because Memoirs of a Survivor describes a world where neat chapters and paragraphs are things of the past. There has been some kind of disaster, which has society unravelling. We follow events through the viewpoint of a woman living alone in what was once a smart block of apartments in a large city. She takes in an abandoned young girl and her cat. The three of them face a slow apocalypse together.
Perhaps the most arresting thing about the opening sections – I would use the word “chapters” but there aren’t any - is the way some of the details of decline are recognisable from everyday pre-apocalypse life:
"... on the newscasts and in the papers they would pursue for days the story of a single kidnapped child, taken from its pram perhaps by some poor unhappy woman. The police would be combing suburbs and the countryside in hundreds, looking for the child, and for the woman, to punish her. But the next news flash would be about the mass deaths of hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people."
So society falls apart, and serious as this sounds there are some amusing moments. There's a hilarious section about the Ryan family - one of those extended clans who can't move for antisocial behaviour orders, and tabloid stories about benefit cheating. Post apocalypse, the Ryans find themselves well adapted. They live from hand to mouth anyway. Scavenging for food and supplies isn't so different from old habits of casual theft.
Interestingly alongside general collapse, structures re-emerge, often very similar to the ones that are disappearing. People who want to take the opportunity of starting again find themselves slipping into old patterns. A group of girls who are determined to live a new life of feminine independence find members sneaking off in search of boys. This aspect of the book is like a thought experiment - if things were stripped back to their first principles what would happen?
All of these conflicts are then mirrored via a parallel story about the apartment owner's ability to focus meditative attention on a badly painted wall in her living room, and disappear through it into a strange realm beyond. On the other side she sees confused biographic details of herself and the girl she has adopted, the action playing out in rooms that fall apart and build themselves again.
Overall, Memoir of a Survivor is as much an exploration of things staying the same as it is a portrayal of change and breakdown. I enjoyed it. The writing is beautiful, and suited so cleverly to what it's saying. Be prepared, however, to spend some time in a world where the rules do not apply.