Bridge 108, Anne Charnock (47North 978-1542006071, $24.95, 204pp, hc) February 2020.
Anne Charnock’s Bridge 108 is set in the same universe as her terrific 2013 debut A Calculated Life (a deserved finalist for both the Philip K. Dick and Kitschies Golden Tentacle Award). When Charnock wrote A Calculated Life six years ago, Brexit, or more accurately the possibility of a referendum to leave the EU, was the wishful thinking of die-hard Euro-sceptics. Now her near-future dystopia, influenced by climate change and limited resources, where the wealthy enjoy genetic enhancements and the impoverished are forced to live in make-shift ghettos outside the city, seems horribly prescient. With the inclusion of climate refugees, child trafficking, and slavery Bridge 108 adds that final touch of verisimilitude to Charnock’s post-Brexit nightmare.
Bridge 108 centres on Caleb, a 12-year-old boy who, with his mother and father, leave a Spain ravaged by drought and unmanageable wildfires for the promised safe harbour of England. Things, however, don’t go to plan. After five weeks, Caleb’s father, who headed off before his wife and son, stops sending messages back home. Not prepared to wait any longer, Caleb and his mother make the treacherous journey toward England. But the rigours of travel become too much for Caleb’s mother who, one night, wanders off and never returns. Three weeks later, barely surviving on the coast of Northern France, Caleb meets Skylark. With her electric bicycle and sidecar, she convinces Caleb to come along with her rather than head for the Reception Centres in England, where he will be handed over to a work camp and become an indentured slave “doing filthy work on the fish farms.” What Caleb doesn’t know is that Skylark is a trafficker, funnelling children to the Enclave outside of Manchester to work at a recycling facility run by “the family.” Caleb, though, is sent to Ma Lexie where, on the roof of an apartment block, he and two other boys fashion clothes out of recycled textiles. When Caleb befriends Odette, a fellow refugee, an opportunity opens up for both of them to escape. But is life outside the Enclave any safer?
What’s impressive about Bridge 108 is the amount of restraint Charnock shows in her treatment of Caleb. It would have been easy (and even tempting) to depict the young man’s life in the Enclave, and beyond, as one of endless physical, mental, and sexual abuse. But while his circumstances are less than ideal, and while Charnock never avoids the fact that Caleb is a victim of child trafficking, his time with Ma Lexie is one of relative stability and safety. She even promotes him to supervisor when Caleb expresses a flair for design. It’s only when Caleb gives Ma Lexie the slip at the market (on a private errand of his own), and she slaps him on his return, (the first time she’s ever struck him) that Caleb begins to understand the reality of his predicament:
While I stood at the back of the stall, I decided Ma Lexie didn’t trust me – even though I’d worked hard and tried to be cheerful all the time. I never once blamed her for any of my problems. I decided, standing there listening to her laughing and joking with her scummy customers, that Ma Lexie is just another chapter in my story of hard luck.
The tragedy for Caleb, which becomes evident when he leaves the Enclave, is that, for all his courage, resourcefulness and innate talent, there is no place for him in this England of genetic enhancements, closed borders, and forced deportations.
While the narrative revolves around Caleb, we also see the world through the eyes of the adults he interacts with, like Ma Lexie and Skylark, and those he meets on the other side of the Enclave, specifically Jerome (not his real name) and Officer Sonia. With the latter two, Charnock provides an insight into the workings of the bureaucracy that tracks down, imprisons, and repatriates refugees and asylum seekers. Neither Jerome (who inveigles his way into rural communities and Enclaves to shut down farms or factories that use illegal immigrants) or Officer Sonia (a simulant – artificial human – who investigates anomalies in the system) ever seem morally or ethically conflicted by their work. On the contrary, they view themselves as assisting refugees, ensuring they’re not exploited but rather returned safely home. This is summed up by Officer Sonia, who believes that Caleb can start afresh in Spain because it’s not “as though he’s seeking asylum. His life isn’t in danger.” It’s the horrible banality of a worldview that doesn’t consider a global climate crisis as dangerous that I find more confronting and effective than repetitive, gratuitous scenes of torture and abuse. As such, it’s almost an act of faith to hope that unlike the case with A Calculated Life we will have moved further away, rather than closer to, the grim, climate affected reality of Bridge 108.
Ian Mond loves to talk about books. For eight years he co-hosted a book podcast, The Writer and the Critic, with Kirstyn McDermott. Recently he has revived his blog, The Hysterical Hamster, and is again posting mostly vulgar reviews on an eclectic range of literary and genre novels. You can also follow Ian on Twitter (@Mondyboy) or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This review and more like it in the February 2020 issue of Locus.
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