It is true that there are a great many dystopian novels out there; how many more scary futures can we deal with? Well, I would urge just one more upon the groaning shelves, because The Detainee had me gripped. It’s set in a not too distant future, both in time and possibility, where the old and unwanted are shunted off onto a hellish island that is basically a toxic rubbish dump. The people living there are sold a life of self-sufficiency, tough but rewarding, when the reality is infinitely more unpleasant. Cut off from the rest of the world the inhabitants must build their own lives from the debris left behind in the often lethal piles of waste.
The rubbish tips are not the only source of danger; at night when the fog descends a blood-curdling hue and cry announces gleeful and merciless violence. No one in the shantytown is safe. Clancy, or Big Guy as he’s known, is doing his best to survive. He’s a bit of a curmudgeon, but he does have one friend, Jimmy, and by extension Jimmy’s companion Delilah. Clancy used to be a heavy, all brawn, no brains, and that’s how he’s become accustomed to understanding himself. He’s finding the ageing process difficult to cope with, as he tracks the toll time takes on his body. Not to mention being discarded like so much trash. He does what he can to get by, including helping with the clean-up operation the mornings after the nights before.
It’s the necessity to scavenge for everything that changes Clancy’s life. Whilst trying to dig up a choice bit of scrap he’s set upon, chased and left for dead. His rescuer is Lena, one of the 'others' who has made a new life for herself. She takes Clancy in and gives him the most precious thing of all: hope. Clancy slowly opens himself up to the idea that maybe his brain is his greatest asset, and an audacious plan to return hope to the whole island is formed.
There are lots of things to love above this story. Clancy is brilliant, as is Lena. I loved the way that their relationship allows Clancy to see himself differently. The breakdown of society is scarily real. The weight of an ageing population causes the financial structure to collapse and older people to be cast as scapegoats for the crisis. Systemic lack of compassion allows people to be treated as garbage, given legitimacy by coating the policy with self-sufficiency rhetoric. It’s not hard to imagine a government with no regard for individual human life. The distancing process is compounded by a penal system that’s done away with juries and trials. Punishment satellites patrol the skies waiting to catch a crime being perpetrated; justice is immediate and enacted upon the body. The concept of rehabilitation is not compatible with justice by drone.
The drumming, shrieking menace in the night is a chilling and fearsome thing. At first I wondered if there was something alien lurking in the mist, but the truth is so much worse. It’s the ultimate indictment of a callous system. The whole thing looks so broken that I couldn’t see any way to even begin to fix it; but it’s a pretty remarkable bunch of average Joes banded together out there. I loved the way the story held out a chance of redemption for the common man; the possibility for the survival of the concept of humanity. But only if enough people are brave enough to stand up and speak out, regardless of the dangers. This is not a given in The Detainee, but you’ve got to cling onto hope.
Jo Fletcher Books have done me proud with a copy of The Detainee, thanks guys. The book is available right now in hardback.