This is the first novel by Antonia Honeywell and what a book it is.
Described as a coming of age adventure, the principal character is Lalla (or Lalage to give her her proper name) the only child of Michael and Anna Paul. Lalage (pronounced Lal-a-dgee) was born at the end of the world, almost literally as the Earth has been blighted by environmental, political and military catastrophes. Cities have been burnt, drowned or otherwise obliterated.
Lalla and her parents live what at first appears to be a fairly spartan existence in a London where Oxford Street burned for 3 weeks before a military government took power and life for those remaining became nasty, brutish and (for many) short. To allocate scarce resources, the government uses the Dove, a hardware/software system developed by Lalla’s father Michael . The Dove allows the government to track its citizens at all times and makes it very difficult to use non-approved websites. People without the correct ID must live in hiding or face death at the hands of the army. This is the most brutal soul-destroying dystopia I have read about but it is logical in the apocalyptic circumstances described.
Lalla dotes on her parents, they are all she has. As mentioned, the Paul’s live frugally but you soon realise that they have forme more than many other people. Lalla’s mother roasts a chicken as a birthday treat and has to close the windows to stop neighbours picking up the scent.
Lalla is lonely, she has no siblings or friends and we feel sympathy for her whilst at the same time recognising her privileged position, even if the gap between her and the less well offer is wafer thin.
As a young girl Lalla visits the British Museum on an almost daily basis. It is an education. Lalla’s mother talks to her about the dwindling exhibits but her main focus is on the hundreds of people who have taken refuge there.
As the situation worsens, Lalla’s parents discuss ‘the ship’. We discover that Michael Paul has used his wealth and influence to purchase, fit out and supply a large ship for 500 chosen refugees. Michael Paul is their saviour but Lalla just wants him to be her Dad. Anna Paul hints that her husband doesn’t just want to save people, he wants them to know that he saved them. Anna resists going to the ship whilst there is still hope in London.
Lalla’s mother is injured which prompts Michael Paul to put his plans into action. Anna Paul dies just as the ship leaves the port. With her only constant companion gone, Lalla’s grief is absolute.
Life on board the ship settles into a routine, whish Lalla seems to enjoy at first. She has a job, a purpose and begins to take an interest in a boy called Tom. There is plenty of leisure time on the ship and people take up hobbies, a book group is formed (perhaps a nod to the potential readers of this book).
Michael Paull wants people to be happy, which they cannot be if they cling to memories of the past and lost loved ones. The people of the ship still watch news bulletins but Michael persuades them to stop, to focus on the present not the past.
Like most of us, Lalla takes meaning from the past and needs to know what the future will hold. The rest of the passengers learn to let go of their pasts and seem content not to know what the future will bring. The people they have lost or left behind are named and remembered in an impromptu ceremony.
The people of the ship seem to be the embodiment of a ‘mindful’ philosophy whereby pleasure comes from fully living in the moment and not being distracted or made unhappy by thoughts of the past or future. Lalla rejects this and sets up her own ‘museum’ to maintain a connection to people and things. “Without connections, there was no learning. Without learning, there was no journey of discovery. And without discovery, there was nothing but a full plate at dinner and a soft bed at night.”
I have to say that given the dire situation they escaped from, I could fully understand why the passengers were content to live without worry. Lalla wants choice and freedom, her attitude and rebelliousness grate on her shipmates. To all but Lalla, the ship is an earthly Eden. Lalla is given an apple as a present but finds out it is fake, alluding to the mock paradise that is the ship.
A ‘cult of personality’ develops focussing on Michael Paul as a saviour, father and quasi messiah. Lalla and Tom fall in love but Tom is committed to Michael Paul. Lalla is cajoled into marriage but the ceremony ends in ashowdown where she decides that she would rather live in an uncertain, violent world with hope rather than slowly dying on the safe predictable ship.
This is a tremendous book that I just had to keep reading. It made me think a lot about my own life and also what I would have done in Lalla’s position. This book deserves to be a ‘book-club’ staple as it would lead to some fantastic discussions.
A great read. Highly recommended. Go and get yourself a copy.