Reviewed by Dr Kathleen Huxley
This novel is a work of fiction written by a new voice in English Literature, Claire North. This name is a pseudonym for British author Catherine Webb who published previous, successful and acclaimed novels, ‘The first Fifteen Lives of Harry August’ and ‘Touch’ under the same nom de plume. In her day job Catherine works as a theatre lighting designer who is a fan of the urban magic of big cities. 84K is a work of dystopian literature that has been compared to Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaids Tale.
The novel begins and ends with the phrase ‘At the beginning and ending of all things……’ and is a recurrent phrase in the narrative alongside ‘Time is ….’. Past, present and future are repeated themes in the totalitarian vision of a society bereft of reason. We are taken into a world where we recognise familiar aspects of daily life overlaid with futuristic features that we can imagine but find abhorrent and intolerable. Despite the strangeness of the atrocities in our contemporary lives they echo ideas and concepts that we recognise as possibilities and predictions of societal evolution. The future is hinted at and there are glimmers of hope that humanism will prevail.
The tale follows the past and present travails of the protagonist ‘Theo Miller’ who is not really ‘Theo Miller’ but his close friend who has assumed his identity.
In the futuristic world where Theo now lives he works in the Criminal Audit Office, assessing each crime that is committed and making sure the correct debt to society is paid in full. He exists in a cold and automaton state with an unswerving reality that requires little in the way of emotions. He fulfils his duty as a ‘Company’ employee and asks few questions of his superiors. ‘Company men would run for parliament, Company newspapers would trumpet their excellence to the sky, Company TV stations would broadcast their election promises and say how wonderful they were. They would inevitably win, serve their seven years in office and then return to the banking or insurance branches happy to have completed their civic duty, and that was that. It was for the best the adverts said. This was how democracy worked: corporate and public interests working together at last, for the greater good.’
Despite everybody’s obedience and passivity to the ‘Company’ there is an undeclared consciousness amongst people ‘we all knew, of course, Everyone knows, but no one looks. We don’t look because if we look it makes us evil because we aren’t doing something about it, or it makes us sad because we can’t do anything about it, or it proves we’re monsters when we always thought we were righteous because we won’t do anything about it. Either way safer not to look’.
Theo remembers important episodes of who he was and where he has come from with affection and poignancy. With one past relationship taking on a real and awakening significance, his burning quest is to fulfil the dream of a long-gone lover and find a girl who may be his daughter. The lengths he will go to and the risks he will take on this journey exhibit an emotional attachment that he has managed to erase from his life as a ‘Company’ man.
This book is a provocative look at what society might come to look like. It is a substantial novel that is well written, captivating and stirring. It is a scary insight into what humans might be capable of doing to others and to themselves ‘just slaves to other people’s fortunes, crawling our way from the cradle to the grave and so…’.
The writing style of the author is thought-provoking and prompts us to understand and follow the narrative in an instinctive way. Altogether a fascinating account of what might happen in this opposite of the utopian society we strive for, one where we live as happy citizens with highly desirable qualities and social conditions. A timely warning of what may be possible in this unpredictable and less than honest world we currently inhabit.
by Claire North
Hachette Livre Australia