A dystopian response to 9/11

Then by Julie Myerson

I read Myerson’s fifth novel, Something Might Happen, back in 2004 – this was before I started writing capsule reviews, but I did make a note about this book, “Emotional and profound,” I wrote, giving it 8/10. That novel explored the effects of a woman’s murder on the local community – something Jon McGregor would do similarly with Reservoir 13 years later. I always planned to read more by her, but hadn’t the opportunity until I spotted her 2011 novel Then, her eighth in the library.

Then is set in an unspecified near future in the city of London. We don’t know what caused everything to stop at 9.22 (clever!), but the air burned and darkness came, fires blazed, then everything froze.

It grows colder. Every day the city alters a little more. There are icicles a metre long on Lombard Street. […]
Familiar landmarks fall away, gone in an instant. A multi-storey car park near our building, which has withstood the weight of years, gives in and sinks to the ground in the space of an afternoon. One day the Monument is still there, defiant and intact; the next it has crashed down across King William Street, the piece of sky it used to occupy left blue and ravished behind it. […]
The police and the army are long gone and vandalism and menace are commonplace. Heartlessness has become the law and no one cares any more who they hurt.

The story of a small group of survivors, who are holing up in one of the glass fronted office blocks on Bishopsgate, is told by a woman – we don’t know her name at first. In fact, we don’t know much about her at all, other than that she has blood on her hands at the beginning of the book. She’d walked into the building, she seemed to know it, and then something happened. She can’t remember what, in fact she can remember very little at all. Something happened to teenager Matthew, whom she calls ‘the kid’. She doesn’t believe she did it; Graham says he is ‘sure you didn’t mean to do it.’ She is obviously suffering from amnesia brought on by PTSD – an unreliable narrator for sure.

She stalks the floors of the skyscraper, seeing ghosts of lost souls in the deserted offices. These visions lead her to back to what went before, what happened then, and it becomes clear that her life wasn’t straight-forward then at all, there was horror and trauma then, maybe she’s better off now without those memories – but once recalled they won’t go away however much she denies them.

The same words I wrote to describe that earlier novel apply equally here. Then is certainly ’emotional and profound’; it is disturbing too to be inside the mind of this broken woman, who is rather unlikeable. Not a lot actually happens in Then, but it is bleak and then some, there can be no happy endings for these characters, who must embrace heartlessness to survive. A brave decision to write in this way by Myerson – a challenge to the reader. I can’t say I enjoyed this depressing tale, but it was compelling to read. (7.5/10)

Source: Library. Julie Myerson, Then (Jonathan Cape, 2011) Vintage paperback, 304 pages.

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6 thoughts on “A dystopian response to 9/11

  1. Liz Dexter says:

    Gosh, the only book I’ve read by her is the non-fiction “Home” about all the people who lived in her house. Well done for being brave enough to read this!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      There is an horrific and terribly sad bit which I can’t possibly say anything more about. This book was a challenge, but she writes really well.

  2. Calmgrove says:

    Post-apocalyptic is the thing now, isn’t it, reflecting the bleak harshness of politics, tribalism and the environment. That 9.22 time is indeed neat: I’m just reading Angela Carter’s 50-year-old (this year) novel Heroes and Villains in which somebody wears a watch that has has stopped at ten to three, no doubt a nod to Rupert Brooke. After last night’s events time does indeed seem to have stopped for us while the madmen drive our bus towards the precipice. ☹️

  3. Brona says:

    I read Meyerson’s first novel, Sleepwalking, way back when and also found it profound, emotional and disturbing. I must try another one by the sounds of thing. I can’t think why I didn’t, except she obviously makes a thing of having one part that is confronting and distressing and hard to write about/think about/face.

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