Many of these blogs are about re-reads. As anyone who is kind enough to be a regular reader will know, I am interested in the way one’s reactions to a particular book evolve over a lifetime. But of course I gleefully gobble up lots of new ones too. Some I enjoy but forget almost as soon as I read the last page. Others grab me by the throat and shake me so dramatically that they really make me think long and hard: Louise Swanson’s End of Story, for example, which was published last month.
We’re in a 2030s dystopia. Fiction of all sorts has been been banned and the ban is ruthlessly enforced. There are sinister, intrusive visits to people’s homes, punishment by mutilation and the ever present threat of a re-education centre where lobotomy is a common “cure”. The imagination must be suppressed at all costs. The narrator, Fern, has been a best selling, prize-winning novelist with a nice house. She now lives widowed and alone in a small house and works as a hospital cleaner. All her books have gone.
Fern writes in a notebook, though, and lives in constant fear of being caught with it because, of course, writing fiction is a criminal offence. And the tension rachets up when she associates herself with an underground (literally) organisation which reads bed time stories to children on phones. There are serious punishments for anyone caught corrupting children by sharing fiction with them.
It feels like a world co-created by George Orwell and Margaret Atwood with a strong whiff of Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451. And somehow it seems slightly more plausible today, when we all vividly remember the absurd, draconian rules of 2020 and 2021, than it would have done say, five years ago. I’m not surprised, therefore, to read in Swanson’s afterword acknowledgements that she was (partly) inspired by Rishi Sunak’s 2020 suggestion, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, that arts people should retrain, thus suggesting by strong implication that the arts are expendable.
So we’re pounding along in this dreadful environment in which horror story decisions are being made at the hospital, Fern develops a serious aversion to milk and forms a forbidden bond with one of the phone-in children she reads clandestine stories to. Then, like a bombshell, comes the best plot twist since Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith. Of course I’m not going to reveal it here but I don’t think it’s giving much away to observe that we’re firmly in the world of unreliable narration. Suddenly the reader is confronted with another set of issues to reflect on and the realisation that yes, silly me, the hints and clues were there all along. It’s an exceptionally well crafted novel.
My only tiny gripe is that the publisher has marketed End of Story as a “thriller.” Well I don’t think I can define “thriller” beyond the sense that whatever this book is it’s not what I think of as a thriller. I’m not sure why we need to be constantly trying to categorise books by packing them neatly into genres anyway. So I shan’t try here – suffice it to say that End of Story is an outstandingly compelling read and one of those rare books which has permanently changed the way I think about several things.
Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: The Sea, the Sea by Iris Murdoch