Reviewed by E.B. Heath
Dystopian fiction often responds to a current reality, expanding its boundaries, illustrating what might happen. Orwell’s 1984 brought the horror of a totalitarian state, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaiden’s Tale depicted totalitarianism via a Christian theocracy, John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids depicts a world that refused to tolerate any behaviour outside of a strictly prescribed norm. And now, Sally Abbott’s prize winning dystopian ‘cli-fi’ novel Closing Down imagines familiar scenarios of worsening climate change, global financial breakdown, hyperinflation, foreign ownership of Australian food producing assets, and the tightening grip of a world government. Displacement plays a central role – many people are forced to re-locate to cities as large chunks of rural Australia are closed, made into ‘no-go zones’. Competition for housing and food is intense, many choose to be ‘walkers’ drifting north into the ‘no go zones’.
Clare and her husband have few possessions. They live in a rented home and she tries to find work wherever and whenever possible. Her husband has given up and rarely leaves the house. Clare loves to wander around the city at night and this is where she discovers information that will help her survive. When they lose their home she makes some serious decisions. She forces her husband to be a walker while she becomes indispensable to Granna, a well- to- do woman with a sensitive social conscious.
Floating over this dispiriting situation is a love story between Granna’s grandson, Robbie, a world roving journalist, who keeps racking up fines for publishing the true world situation, and his long-standing girlfriend, Ella, who is committed to helping, where needed, in the swelling global refugee camps. This work becomes the main focus of her life.
Curiously, aspects of magical realism are scattered throughout the narrative. There is the question of the mysterious falling bones, the blonde child with the creepy man, the magic potion man mixing aroma and memory, rows of secret computers in hidden places, and highly intelligent cats. Perhaps Abbott just intended to lighten the alarmingly plausible plot, or, to illustrate that there are things that are beyond political control – that imagination is our portal to hope and resistance.
I felt the absence of Indigenous Australians. Whereas it is not realistic to expect to include all aspects that might be present in the scenarios outlined above, this was a big omission. I wondered what their situation would look like. Were they left to their own devices in the north, returning to customary law, living entirely off the land, or were they forced to abandon remote homelands for the inclusion zones? A race of people, unnamed and unnoticed, is missing from this book.
Sally Abbott is an ex-journalist who has spent her career reporting on issues in rural Australia as well as abroad. The ideas presented would, no doubt, have their genesis in the problems she encountered during this time. In 2015 ill health forced her to take a break from journalism, so giving her space to write this thoughtful novel. She won the inaugural Richell Prize, which is awarded to the writer of an unpublished manuscript (together with a mentorship with Hachette Publishers) from a pool of almost a thousand entrants.
Closing Down is the kind of book that rouses readers to take the base story line and set off on a journey of problem solving imagination. It is well worth a read.
By Sally Abbott
ISBN 978 0 7336 3594 6