Christopher Priest’s Fugue for a Darkening Island.

The whole of Africa is in turmoil., refugees from the continent are fleeing to anywhere they can force a landing. In their millions.

In England the trickle of refugees looking for a home, for safety, becomes a flood. Soon the South of England is overrun Towns succumb to mob rule, pitched battles are fought over houses. The refugees gather together a government, an army and soon the Afrims are in negotiations with the British Government. Compromise is reached, promises are made. And broken.

And through these chaotic days, as extremists vie for control, as violence flares and society collapses, one man tells his story.

Alan Whitman has lost his job, his home, his family, everything. He is a desperate man…

This is a curious book. The edition that I read is a revised edition of a book first published in 1972. Fugue for a Darkening Island posses a curious atemporality because while the book has been revised to make Christopher Priest’s intended neutrality more explicit the general attitude and details of the society depicted haven’t. The cover copy refers to the book as being a “classic catastrophe novel” and I read it as part of the same tradition that books by John Wyndham, although harder and generally of a less conservative and hopeful character. And while it is less cosey than other catastrophe novels there’s still some restraint that slows the books down so that actually the book becomes boring.

Not badly written or unreadable, just boring.

There are violent set pieces and scenes of domestic breakdown caused by both the crisis and Alan Whitman’s own emotional immaturity, and taken individually these scenes do excite and hold interest. Like I said, this isn’t a badly written book. But there’s a lot of bumbling around the south of England and all the standard problems found in a catastrophe are all present. We are shown there is a genuine lack of shelter (except the book does, for a short while, turn into a typical British camping holiday), security, and a place to go for a pint and read the newspaper. However this is a two hundred page novel and I’m quite sure that if this was compressed into a novella of half its length with all the fat and faffing cut I might not have drifted off into periods of profound boredom.

One final problem is that the novels end is fatally obvious and very Daily Mail. But Fugue for a Darkening Island is curious and I’m not sure if this is a deliberate dissonant effect intended by Christopher Priest. Not sure because while Fugue for a Darkening Island demonstrates a complex attitude towards extreme immigration issues, with Alan Whiteman being a tolerant liberal at the start of the novel, by the end of the novel we are left with a text that demonstrates Africans are always cruel savages and that white Anglo-Saxon little Englanders are decent people.

All I’m going to say is white people rape and kill women too.

So there’s Fugue for a Darkening Island. It’s a problematic book and I haven’t even begun to explore the issues raised by this being a revised edition of a forty year old book. That might be an issue not worth starting as unwrapping the past from the present is a notoriously difficult task and in a book like Fugue for a Darkening Island is rife with double arguments that leave us with no firm answers. Maybe all I can say on this issue is that I think I’d rather have read the text unrevised from the original 1972 edition.

This is a boring, yet curious, book. A dull catastrophe that in places seems close to the way thing are or would be, and in other places seems like the rantings found in the Daily Express/Mail letters page. Not bad, but also not good.

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