Source: Review copy
Publication: 23 March 2023 from Hodder Books
Too much imagination can be a dangerous thing. It has been five years since writing fiction was banned by the government.
Fern Dostoy is a criminal. Officially, she has retrained in a new job outside of the arts but she still scrawls in a secret notepad in an effort to capture what her life has become: her work on a banned phone line, reading bedtime stories to sleep-starved children; Hunter, the young boy who calls her and has captured her heart; and the dreaded visits from government officials.
But as Fern begins to learn more about Hunter, doubts begin to surface. What are they both hiding?
And who can be trusted?
There are clues in this emotive dystopian thriller if you keep an eye out for them. Fern Dostoy is our narrator and she is a deeply unhappy woman. No wonder, for Fern is a writer, an award winning writer in a country where fiction has been banned.
It is 2035 and there has been no new fiction published for the last 5 years. Worse, all fiction books have been removed from the shelves of bookshops and libraries and there are regular amnesty days to hand in the last remaining works of fiction, because to be found with such a book is to open oneself up to severe punishment. Storytelling in all its forms has been banned.
Fern’s writing really took off after she lost her husband to Covid. That, and the grief she felt at her childlessness, propelled her to get all her rage and grief out on paper, resulting in a barnstorming best-seller that won major awards. But her writing was not appreciated by those in power and so helped to kickstart the process of banning fiction.
Echoes of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 abound here. Fern Dostoy was compelled to move from her house to a neighbourhood where she knows no-one. She has lost her friendships with fellow writers, most of whom have also been forcibly relocated, and she sees no-one and speaks to no-one. Now she lives alone and works as an office-cleaner under on less than basic wages just to live. Louise Swanson’s novel is written in the form of Fern’s diary. She is our narrator and we see just how bereft her existence is and how much she suffers from being unable to write.
She is regularly visited by two government officials – she knows them as the tall one and the short one. Their job is to make absolutely sure that she is not writing fiction and their unannounced visits also encompass a search of her house looking for any contravention of the law.
Then she strikes up a relationship with a disabled door to door seller of tea. Despite herself, she finds that she looks forward to his visits.
Yet something seems off-kilter in this horrid, cruel alienated world. A blue and white trainer becomes a recurring motif in Fern’s life. The tea man seems to be trying to tell her something, but presses biscuits into her hand instead.
Then Fern is offered a glimpse of hope and from there the trajectory of her life alters.
Louise Swanson’s book will puzzle you and have you wondering who you can trust. I hated the idea of a world without books and fiction. I did work out where the book was headed but I very much enjoyed working out how it all came together.
Verdict: A fascinating and bleak look at a world I never want to live in. Emotive and terrifying, devastating and oppressive, you’ll be wondering just who to trust.
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As a child, Louise Beech told everyone she was going to be a world-famous novelist one day. She once bet her mum ten pounds that she’d be published by thirty – her first newspaper column was published when she was thirty-one. She finally got a book deal in 2015. Her debut, How to be Brave, published by Orenda Books, got to No4 on Amazon and was a Guardian Readers’ Pick; Maria in the Moon, also Orenda Books, was described as ‘quirky, darkly comic and heartfelt’ by the Sunday Mirror; The Lion Tamer Who Lost shortlisted for the Popular Romantic Novel of 2019 at the RNA Awards and longlisted for the Polari Prize 2019; Call Me Star Girl longlisted for the Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize and was Best magazine’s Best Book of the Year 2019; and I Am Dust was a Crime Magazine Monthly Pick. This Is How We Are Human was published in June 2021. Louise still hasn’t given her mum that tenner though. Louise also writes under the name Louise Swanson.