By Elizabeth Oladoyin
Without giving too much away, This Is Our Undoing follows Lina Stephenson as she juggles her assignment of monitoring wildlife in the Rila Mountains of a post-apocalyptic Bulgaria and attempting to evacuate her family from London. She begins the process of covertly relocating her family following the death of a politician that she is very loosely attached to by virtue of her past activism with an ex-boyfriend, who was apprehended on suspicion of committing the crime. When asked about what inspirations and life experiences encouraged her to tell this story, the author, Lorraine Wilson, responded:
“A sense of powerlessness, basically. When I started formulating ideas for this story, Trump had just been elected and Brexit just voted for. I was utterly heartsore and sick with anger at what was becoming the mainstream political ideology in the UK and the US. This Is Our Undoing isn’t a politically driven novel, but it is about the choices we as individuals make to be kind or not, to forgive or not, to see or not to see – which is about our own private humanity, isn’t it? This then ripples out to society’s humanity, too. The other influence was simply the setting. I’ve recently spent time in the Rila Mountains where the book is set, and I’ve previously worked in Boreal forests in Poland and Russia. The sheer biodiversity and scale of the forest in the Rila Mountains is a biologist’s dream. It is imbued with folklore and traditions that add a whole other layer of magic to it. So as the story idea was starting to seed itself, I had this setting already in my mind and I just couldn’t resist the contrast between a dystopian society and this stunning wilderness.”
As Lorraine previously mentioned, though set in a dystopian world, the book’s primary focus is the complexity of its characters and the differences with which they experience this futuristic society. Lorraine goes onto explain that:
“I deliberately didn’t write a ‘post-apocalyptic’ scenario – there’s been no world war or plague or whatever, because I think the greatest danger to the future of society is not in some big crisis event, but in the gradual drift, the cumulative normalisation. The background politics in my novel are my view on where we could easily end up just by letting the hateful parts of society continue to creep forward, to frame the narrative and nudge ‘the norm’ constantly in the direction of their choosing. My first hope is definitely that readers will connect with the characters in the story. If readers also take any political message away from it, then I hope it’s that perhaps it does matter what choices they make, and perhaps it’s worth making the more uncomfortable choices today instead of tomorrow. My end goal was to say that even when you feel powerless, there is great power in the small acts – the reaching out of a hand, the standing up, the saying ‘no’. And also perhaps to say that you aren’t defined by your traumas, you are defined by how you heal from them. I remind myself that very few people who are selfish, bigoted or cruel are those things out of a deliberate ‘I want to be cruel’ choice – they are that way because they are jealous, comfortably oblivious or insecure. The political underpinnings were the framework within which I wanted to explore those themes, because they are the framework within which anyone who is disenfranchised or marginalised has to negotiate their whole lives.”
The book manages to cover more genres than just its dystopian theme. Elements from other popular genres, such as murder mysteries and suspense thrillers, are woven into the story, what with the attempt to uncover who was responsible for the death of Christopher Wiley and the mysterious blackouts of equipment. There is also a heist-like quality to the first half of the book, as Lina struggles to evacuate her family with the rapid, almost feverish, communication she has with old associates to safely transport them.
“Something that has always interested me is how much of ourselves we reveal in how we view (and treat) the natural world, and I play with that a bit in this book. For Lina (my main character), the wilderness is her refuge, it’s a place of belonging, of safety and joy, despite its dangers. For the locals, it symbolises belonging and faith and livelihood. For Kai, a young and very lost boy, it becomes a source of hope, whereas for Kai’s older brother, it’s hostile and intimidating. I think that’s very telling about the characters, and it was fun to play with this aspect of the setting-as-mirror when I was writing.”
On other resources or books she would recommend to her readers, Lorraine says:
“I don’t really like saying ‘you must read X to understand this issue’ because I think there’s a wealth of information out there and we are all coming to an understanding from different starting points. You have to find the voices that speak most clearly to your blindspots (and they aren’t always in books due to systemic biases in who makes it onto the bookshelves). I think reading anything that challenges you, that takes you just a little bit beyond your comfort zone and moves you emotionally, whether fact or fiction is great… As long as we seek to be compassionate, that will feed into our understanding of the world.”
Overall, there is plenty to enjoy about this book, from its captivating, scenic descriptions of the wildlife surrounding Lina at the station where she works, to the realistic and humanising portrayal of antagonists and their motivations. For those who enjoy a fantastic and awe-inspiring slow build, where the world around the characters shares equal importance with their growth, this one's for you. I highly recommend everyone to go and grab a copy!