I know I’ve mentioned a few (hundred) times that I’m a sucker for the Man Booker Prize, and I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of those lists for many years. I’ve finally started paying more attention to others, too, particularly the Costa (formerly Whitbread) Awards and the Women’s Prize, and I also found the cheeky Not-the-Booker Prize awarded by The Guardian from a blend of votes by the public and a judging panel. I thought the 2018 winner, Rebecca Ley’s Sweet Fruit, Sour Land, sounded interesting, so I snagged a copy in Melbourne last fall.
Climate change has driven the civilized world into chaos. France has been obliterated by civil war. The Nordic countries have closed their borders. The UK has been taken over by a fascist called Mrs P but who prefers to be known as Auntie, as in her slogan “Auntie knows best”. Electric power is sporadic and rationed, just like food and medical care. Farmers can’t afford to raise the few crops that still grow in the new climate, and they often go on strike, making food even more scarce. Young women are tested for fertility and required to reproduce to keep up the population, and those who refuse are arrested and forced. The world of the commoners is dark, wet, and starving, but for the elite that remain, lights still shine, and food and drink flow to excess at never-ending parties. Mathilde and Jaminder meet at one of these parties, both having been specially invited, both thinking it’s their only chance for survival. Of course, it’s not that simple, and before long, they’re fleeing not only for their own lives but also for that of their son.
This book was a great example of how the ending can ruin an otherwise enjoyable read. It felt like a darker, bleaker companion to Station Eleven by way of The Handmaid’s Tale. Rebecca Ley set up a solid story with gloomy atmosphere dripping with despair and desolation, as if the world really were coming to an end. There was a nice slow burn of building dread, leading to some truly horrifying reveals, and then . . . everything went flat. The narrator started reminiscing and recapping, the action got stuck in the mud, and what had been a compelling book went out with a whimper. A better editor might have been able to guide Ley to strengthen ending and clear up a few odd inconsistencies, but those problems were serious enough to drop my 4.5 star rating down to a 3.5.