It’s not quite clear what has beset the future inhabitants of Earth in Melbourne-based New Yorker Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming (Harvill, RRP£12.99). But it’s fair to say they haven’t had much luck. Trials faced include not only floods, famine and fire, but plague and totalitarian governments. They might be forgiven for not having anticipated everything on the horizon in this gleefully apocalyptic novel, which takes the form of a series of connected short stories.
When we first meet the book’s unnamed narrator, it is New Year’s Eve 1999. Nine years old, he is brought to the countryside by his father who fears that the Millennium Bug (remember that?) will destroy civilisation. The final story finds him, decades later, shepherding a group of patients with environmentally induced cancers on a last-chance-to-see tour around the globe. In the intervening years, our hero has been a thief, a senator’s assistant and a member of a commune.
As ever with this kind of dystopian fiction, there is a satisfying tingle in imagining an Armageddon just round the corner. But Amsterdam also gives his book an emotional heart; it lies in the contrast between the narrator’s very ordinary emotions – jealousy, fear, the desire to belong – and his extraordinary circumstances. Nowhere is this played out better than in the final reunion with his father, which gives a memorable debut a pleasing circularity.
For a different kind of dystopia look no further than 1980s New York as experienced by a young girl just “off the boat” from Hong Kong. That’s the scenario of Jean Kwok’s Girl in Translation (Penguin, RRP£12.99). Installed in a cockroach-ridden Brooklyn apartment, Kimberly Chang and her mother survive on the slave wages of a Chinatown sweatshop. If that sounds like the fictional version of a misery memoir, it’s not. Kwok’s guileless ragtrade-to-riches story is infused with optimism and a can-do spirit. This doesn’t always help the narrative tension: it’s clear nothing will stop the good-hearted heroine’s irresistible rise. But it does make this a hard book to dislike, and there is freshness to Kimberly’s recollections of childhood.
The Butterfly Cabinet (Headline Review, RRP£19.99) is more intricately layered. In a big house in Victorian Ireland, a child dies and a mother is taken to jail. Only 70 years later is the truth of what happened finally revealed, through a prison diary and a former nanny’s testimony. Bernie McGill’s assured debut is an intense exploration of maternal love and guilt. What also distinguishes it is its delicate portrait of a society that, within one lifetime, would face unimaginable change. Things they didn’t see coming, indeed.