By Julie Myerson
I feel uneasy with books that create the worst possible, most desperate situations and then imagine the appalling ways people in those situations might behave. THEN is a book of this kind, written by someone who has achieved a certain notoriety for having converted her teenage son’s drug addiction into material for a book. I haven’t looked into this in much detail because, frankly, I’m not interested and I suspect this blending of what is written and the context around it would only confuse and interfere with one’s reading of THEN. The novel is, stylistically, a great achievement – a narrative that blurs the characters awareness of fantasy and reality, something which becomes more disturbing as the story evolves. There is a spare, icy quality to the prose – evocative of the frozen, post-apocalyptic world in which the novel is set. The rendering of atmosphere and suffering is skillful – but also the source of my reservations. There seems to me something too easy about a text where despair and suffering are so extreme that the reader is only able to be a voyeur. We are not in a position to engage at any ethical level, the decisions taken and the behaviour of the main character are a product of such violence that we can only really feel dismay. I question the value of this experience as something reached through reading.
Moreover, I suspect it is dangerous – one of the greatest illusions we can harbour is that being able to experience emotion when reading is the equivalent of knowing feelings in real life (‘theory of mind’ tells us that empathy is a frequent response to fiction, but empathy is not the same as knowledge.) Perhaps there are certain dark journeys of the soul that resist fictional treatment and feel wrong when neatly packaged for an audience. If so, THEN is probably such a novel.