Theo is an average citizen in a fairly average dystopia. You know the kind: human rights violations are normal, everyone is scared, and the government wields unilateral power with virtually no opposition; or, to be more accurate, The Company (a mega corp) runs the government, which wields power with virtually no opposition. Everyday, Theo gets up, goes to work, calculates the financial costs of crimes to society, slaps a bill on the perpetrator, bothers absolutely no one, stands up not even for himself (to the point where he is in the absolute worst corner of the office), then goes home to a squalid flat to be by himself. Theo is hiding a secret though; he isn’t who he says he is. While his new identity gave him a new lease on life from the impoverished and irreparable upbringing he started with, he has to make himself invisible so no one asks questions.
Staged in the UK some years down the line, it’s easy to draw comparisons with 1984; the name itself, 84K, is probably a sly nod to that eponymous novel. The 84K in question refers to the cost of the murder of Dani, a young woman Theo grew up with who ended up on the patty lines -basically 21st century indentured servitude- for most of her life. Prior to her murder, Dani reconnected with Theo, revealing she had his child in secret some 15 years prior, and that she has evidence of major corporate and governmental malfeasance. Her murder leads Theo to finally start questioning his own complicity in an unjust system and leads him on a quest to hold someone, anyone, accountable for her loss and to get their daughter, Lucy, back.
I had a hard time finding the second book I wanted to read for the Cannonball, but when this came along I knew it was going to be a good choice. For some reason, I thought it was a conventional murder mystery with just a bit of a sci-fi twist, which is why it sat in my Kobo unread for at least a month. Once I got into it, I realized it was so much more than a murder mystery, and was delighted by the strong writing and stylistic experimentation.
I think North chose the name to draw comparisons to Orwell and the other great dystopic novels, and she doesn’t disappoint by making it obvious she wants to be considered within their ranks. It reminds me of The Handmaid’s Tale and Children of Men (the movie, not the book, the book is rotten, don’t read it), because of her focus on a family’s efforts to reunite and her stylistic choices. Like Atwood, North makes the structure of the book as much about the mental state of our protagonist as the events are. North breaks up sentences and lines and paragraphs with unique spacing to suggest the way time and memory break down over a lifetime, and while it can be a bit confusing to jump around, and will turn off some readers, it’s worth it to stick it out. I appreciate how her writing structure and narrative devices reflect Theo’s own fractured state of being.
I don’t want to get too spoiler-heavy, so I will say that it’s another book in the dystopia milieu where the bad times are caused by capitalism run rampant. We’re talking a society that makes Ayn Rand look liberal. North drops us into an England that is so far gone that people can be charged, arrested, and fined for causing emotional stress because the wealthy don’t want to see beggars on the street. It’s a sad, brutal world, where many are left to utter destitution. People out in the country literally rage all day and night, screaming and breaking down with a religious zeal, simply because they have no other option. You either survive and play by the rules or you’re tossed out, to live like an animal. I wouldn’t call it a cautionary tale, but it isn’t far-fetched.
It is a bit long, so give yourself time if you plan on picking it up for the Cannonball read, unless you’re a fast reader and have a lot of time it may take a few weeks to get through. The end went on about fifty pages longer than I expected it to, but I was glad it did because it provided a satisfying resolution for a story that easily could have ended on a down note and with no hope in sight. I will say that I appreciate that North did not follow in Orwell and Atwood’s footsteps with a dour ending, and instead gave a bit of light at the end of the tunnel.