Untied Kingdom by James Lovegrove
Gollancz HCVR: ISBN0575073861 PubDate: April 17, 2003
Review by John Berlyne
352 pages List price £17.99
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I came to the works of James Lovegrove through his PS Publishing novella, How the Other Half Lives, an ingeniously twisted Dorian Gray type tale and one which gives me another excuse (as if I need one!) to pay tribute once more to Peter Crowther for publishing it (See my review of the two latest PS Publishing novella releases in this issue: Light Stealer by James Barclay and Righteous Blood by Cliff Burns). Crowther and Lovegrove have a longstanding friendship and this has even extended into collaboration their jointly written novel Escardy Gap appeared in 1998 and PS Publishing incidentally are to publish another Lovegrove title, Gig, a double novella due in November. More info as ever from http://www.pspublishing.co.uk/.
In the meantime, James Lovegrove has a new novel out and a rather good one it is too! The brilliantly titled Untied Kingdom is published this month by Gollancz. It is a common typo this, and one that tends to go unnoticed by most spell-check programs, the mistake being a legitimate word. And is it upon a mistake that the story of Untied Kingdom is founded.
This is a tale of England after a fall not post-apocalyptic exactly, but post what Lovegrove terms as the "Unlucky Gamble". We never get the details of just what might have been involved in this gamble this story is concerned with the consequences, not the causes but the gist of it is that the British government did something, employed some policy or perhaps backed some unjust cause that brought about the ostracism of the country. Cut off now from an international community that occasionally sends punitive bombing squadrons over English cities, the UK has regressed to something resembling the ration-racked 40 & 50's. (Wales and Scotland and the newly independent Cornish peninsula have all seceded and closed their borders). In rural areas, people must collect their fresh water in barrels left out in the rain, electricity is a commodity nostalgically remembered and ever mourned, and a trade in the smuggling of such luxuries as French beer or fancy soaps flourishes.
In Downbourne, a village somewhere along England's southern coast, life has settled into manageable hardship. Our protagonist, Fen Morris, is the local schoolteacher, his wages paid for by pupil's parents in the form of packs of batteries and suchlike for a terms worth of lessons. Life in Downbourne is quiet in spite of the impositions of the Unlucky Gamble, but for Fen, his domestic situation is far from blissful. He and his wife Moira are having problems, their marriage under terrible strain since the miscarriage she suffered some months ago. Now Moira sleeps all day, and displays open hostility to her husband when they chance upon each other in the house. Fen too is not without fault, choosing to cope with this unpleasantness by denial, going to any lengths to avoid confrontation with Moira, and thus allowing a bad situation to worsen.
Downbourne is not ignorant of Fen's problems small rural communities thrive on such gossip, yet life continues there as normal (relatively speaking), overseen by the village mayor, Michael Hollingbury, aka The Green Man. This larger than life character, modelling himself on the mythical figure from English folklore that symbolises the fertility of the land and the cycling of the seasons, is at the heart of Downbourne's brave struggle through these difficult times. The Green Man seems ever present, riding through the town on his horse, giving encouragement to his people. He organises festivals to which to townsfolk bring what food and drink they can and, in spite of the privations they suffer, a good time is had by all.
But beyond the provincial hedges and fields of Downbourne, the cities of England are not so idyllic and innocent. In London, cut off round its perimeter by the M25 through which one cannot pass without a permit, the city is run by ruthless gangs ever vying for territory and power.
In a scene of shocking and unexpected violence, the Downbourne festival is rudely interrupted by the arrival of a motorcade (cars being a rare site indeed) from which pour dozens of roughs intent on mayhem the British Bulldogs, rulers of Lewisham, are on a raid and they don't plan on returning to the capital empty handed. Murderous beatings are administered, humiliations meted out and, worst of all, the "useful" women of Downbourne, Fen's wife Moira amongst them, are bundled into the vans and whisked away to the city, their fate far from unimaginable.
This then is the set-up of Untied Kingdom. We follow Fen on his incident-filled quest to reach London where, not really knowing why he feels compelled to do so, he intends to rescue his wife from the clutches of the Bulldogs. At the same time, we follow Moira's story as she comes to terms with her abduction and as she acclimatises to her new life amongst the gang as the concubine of their awe-inspiring leader, King Cunt (apparently a modern appropriation the name of the ancient King Canute, as well the obvious brutal statement). As these two journeys converge, the reader is caught up in how foolhardy the determined Fen's quest truly is and in the question of whether Moira will want to be rescued by him after all. It is a gripping scenario.
At a time when such quality work is coming out of the UK (and you'd be hard put to argue otherwise!) it is exciting to read a piece from these isles that is about these isles. Lovegrove's near future imaginings about a Britain in decline are superb. This is science fiction with the raw edge of serious plausibility attached no FTL drives or two headed aliens here, rather a frightening, you-never-know-it-could-just-happen setting and one delivered skilfully and without the author giving in to the temptation to infodump. Lovegrove here is entering the territory of John Wyndham and he knows it, even going so far as to tip Wyndham a nod by naming a neighbouring village after him, but this is no rip-off of The Day of The Triffids (read my review of the Wyndham classic here) rather an impressive addition to the canon of post-disaster Britain novels.
There's also a touch of Orpheus and Eurydice too, with Fen entering the hell that is London in order to recover his love but the link, if it is at all deliberate, is tenuous at best. Myths are at work here, but they're more home grown than Greek. Fen's journey though is certainly an interesting one and the reader learns much about both the man and the landscape through which he travels. The going is tough and sometimes quite surreal and there are notable incidents along the way, including a crazy Indian train driver and a sect of people whose lives are ritually devoted to the works of a mediocre novelist. Fen's unintentional visit with them will have you thinking of Stephen King's Misery, but perhaps with a few more laughs added!
This likable and intelligent novel however, does have one or two things in it that I feel duty bound to question. Following a classic three act structure, I did find the story lost it's grip on me as we entered act two (There's a couple of spoilers in the coming sentences so jump ahead to the next paragraph if you're wary of such things!) Lovegrove has Fen break a leg at one point in the narrative and this immobilises the protagonist for a quite a while. It is clear, in terms of plot, why this happens, but it is no easy task to sustain forward momentum in a story when your protagonist cannot go anywhere problems, situations, dangers must come to him. To be fair, Lovegrove manages to do this, but, I felt at the expense of the some of the novel's drive and energy. My other criticism is of the British Bulldogs a name not a million miles away from the BNP -- one of our, shall we say, less tolerant political fringe parties. Lovegrove's villains are clearly synonymous with this unsavoury reality and certainly they swear and fight and do all manner of bad things but for all that I still felt they were somewhat sanitised. That they weren't, given the milieu of Lovegrove's broken England, unspeakable racists bastards on top of all their vulgarisms just didnt ring true with me. It smacked of the author being unwilling to paint another level of nasty truth onto his novel, of him simply being too "nice". A braver and more real choice would have been to go the whole hog.
These are minor (though I hope, valid) criticisms and no way undermine the quality of this novel. Lovegrove is undoubtedly one of the most British writers of all the British writers currently at work and therefore it is true that this novel may not travel well. If it doesn't see publication in the US, I would certainly advise our non-UK readers to order it online or pick it up as an import. It makes for great reading. A definite four stars out of five. Find out more about the author at www.jameslovegrove.com.