by Simon Lelic
334 pages, Mantle
Review by Marc Nash
I'd heard really good things about Lelic's debut "Rupture". I was looking to buy it by the time his follow up came out and since for various reasons I couldn't get hold of the debut, I plumped for this one to keep me going. Big mistake. I don't know if it is a case of the difficult follow up novel, or the press of deadlines, but this book just did nothing for me.
The Facility can't seem to decide what it wants to be. If it's a dystopian near future Britain, yet there are only 86 people who are inconvenienced. If it's a thriller, there's an awful lot of stopping off to buy sandwiches for lunch and having a drink down the pub. If it's a political novel, it's caught between the 2000's threat of terrorism and a throwback to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980's. Either in its conception it just hasn't been thought through imaginatively enough, or as I suggested it was all just too rushed. The only thing that gainsays this latter hypothesis is that the writing is lean and limber throughout. Normally if a novel is undercooked, certain passages do stand out as underwritten and that is not the case here, so I tip my hat to Lelic's ability unfailingly to write a solid sentence. There is one section towards the end, where one of the characters exhibits paranoia, believing themselves to be followed, that evidences Lelic's descriptive powers. But these flourishes are few and far between.
A new deadly virus is afoot in Britain. Eighty-six people believed to represent the vectors of transmission are rounded up and put in a concentration camp, "The Facility.” Not all of them are infected, but in a nod to Orwell's "1984", the mere mention of a name by one of the already accused is enough to ensure that the bearer of the name is arrested as well. It's not very convincing. if Lelic was making a point about denouncing one's neighbours, it goes against the scientific rigour of epidemiology, which itself is also not executed credibly; these eighty-six represent all the people (and a few innocents) that could have come into contact with the disease in the month since patient zero was discovered? I just don't buy it. If it is to serve as a mere excuse for governmental clamp down on civil rights, using the laws on terrorism to intern the 'infected', Lelic doesn't really develop this sinister logic either. It all just falls between the gaps.
Then there is the disease itself. It's sexually transmitted. It gives lesions. So far so AIDS and at the end of the book is an epigram from Randy Shilts' seminal AIDS-era book "And The Band Played On". But the dreary upshot of this is the transmission vectors are held to be sex workers and homosexuals, the tired old implication being only these two groups are sexually over-active enough to court the disease. I thought we'd got past all that prejudicial thinking back in the late 80s. The interrogators and Camp guards are casually homophobic. This whole aspect of the writing is just horrible.
It's curious that when the novel isn't detailing the issues around quarantine and the concentration camp, the life of Britain is very tranquil and bourgeois. Tea and mown lawns and the like. Not much of a dystopia, and the implicit payoff of a lifestyle if one isn't sexually voracious. The domestic detail is banal and would only have a point if it were highlighting by contrast, the increasing struggle of the characters within the Camp as they are stripped of all mundane domesticities. But they aren't.
You can always tell a lot from the characters' names. To some extent there is always a little symbolism behind the choice of name, but here Graves, Clarke, Priestley and Silk all live up to the single dimensionality of their monikers. Graves is the governor of The Facility and has two massive swings of conscience, neither of which rang authentically to me, while his backstory of regret at a failed marriage and an estranged daughter seemed unintegrated for all Lelic's efforts. The investigative journalist just didn't seem all that probing. There was some depth to the wrongly interned man and the friendship he strikes up with his cell mate. But all in all, it just was not enough to redeem this book.
I'm annoyed with myself, because I still feel beholden to read "Rupture" and see whether that justified the acclaim. I'll let you know when I manage to track down a copy.
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