An eerily timeous novel set in a post-apocalyptic world
It's the end. The characters are the last ones limping, writes Anna Stroud of Frank Owen's 'North'
Published in the Sunday Times: 05/05/2019
Frank Owen, Corvus Books, R290
It hits you like a fist to the skull - it's raw, bewildering, electric and intensely real. The characters could be you and me, only it's the end of the world and they're the last ones limping.
Set against the backdrop of post-war America, North tells the story of those that survived the wind-borne viruses created by the vicious Northern dictator Renard in South - the first novel by Frank Owen (aka Diane Awerbuck and Alex Latimer).
There's Vida, sexy and strong, her partner Dyce, and her mother, Ruth, who escaped apartheid SA just to face more death and evil in America. And then there's Kurt, a psychotic teenager out to kill everyone, except his beloved pets.
Latimer explains: "He's the next generation and he's heartless, but not because he's suffering from PTSD or anything - he simply grew up after the world ended. He doesn't know 'normal' life and as a result has alarming clarity about how he expects the future to be. He's either broken or more evolved: it's hard to tell which."
What could easily become a beloved character is Felix the Weatherman. Old as time and tough as nails, Felix is a cantankerous old man hell-bent on riding out the apocalypse alone.
"He's measured in the face of calamity, and that wisdom only comes with hard living and doing things the wrong way the first time," Diane Awerbuck says. "He's seen it all, and he still has the capacity for humour. He's a funny guy."
Ruth is not your typical maternal figure; the world has hardened her. She's the glue that binds the book to SA. "We didn't really know how difficult it would be to set two whole novels in America - a country we've both only visited briefly," Latimer says. "So it was a relief to have Ruth as a familiar face there."
After fleeing home, Ruth became a nurse in the hospital where Renard created the viruses that wiped out the continent. In Ruth's possession is an old, weathered recipe book, which she keeps with her always.
"In her book she brings the history of her life and also the seeds for a new beginning," Latimer explains. "That one object is the connection between the past and future, which in the context of an apocalypse is an intriguing idea. The book is hope for her. She wouldn't carry it with her if she didn't expect to survive."
To Awerbuck, the recipe book represents a repository of good things kept safe across the continents and across time. "You can't get the old world back, but you have the chance to make a new one you can inhabit. We are our own repositories, but we have to figure out what's in them."
The story might be set in a post-apocalyptic world, but if you look at the state of the world today - the breakdown of basic services, governments growing more insular, corrupt and cruel the world over, international and civil wars and terrifying epidemic outbreaks - North and South are timeous novels ... eerily so.
"We wrote South before Donald's [Trump] brainwave about the wall," Latimer says. "You can look at that as an amazing coincidence, or perhaps we were simply working off the same zeitgeist. We hope South and North are cautionary tales."
"The wall is between countries, and between communities, because prejudice is the easy choice and because our governments encourage us to fear difference and discomfort," Awerbuck explains. "But the wall is also within each person, a Kafkaesque wall between the parts of our own selves we find acceptable, and the parts that we think are weak or needy or ugly. The novels are also about individual integration as well as the social kind, about learning to love imperfection. That's what the apocalypse does for us, if nothing else."
North packs a punch. It's a story about the power of small things - one spore, one virus, one person, one book. @annawriter_
We are giving away two AUDIBLE (audiobook) versions of North. To enter, name the first book written by Frank Owen. E-mail your answer, name and contact number to firstname.lastname@example.org with NORTH as the subject. Only one entry per person. Competition closes on Friday May 10. Ts and Cs apply.