I’ve always been a huge reader of dystopian and ‘end of the world’ fiction. For some strange reason it seems that the bleaker and more terrifying the story, the more I enjoy it. I know that sounds pretty grim and strange, but I think there’s something incredibly intriguing about what it takes to push someone to their limit and the way an altered world can change human nature. As a modern society we’re constantly living through change and thus adapting, and I think that these kinds of fiction capitalise very heavily on real and present fears.
When Amanda Hickie’s novel, Before This is Over, arrived on my doorstop, I was thrilled. Although it was a book I’d never heard of before, the story sounded amazing and the cover design was very well done. The novel focuses upon one family, following primarily Hannah, a wife and the mother of two young boys. They live a normal life, working normal jobs and living in a normal street. But something has been coming, something has been making its way slowly but surely into the normality of their lives; a lethal illness. Desperate to save the lives of her family, Hannah begins to stockpile supplies in the house, a foolproof plan in place for the coming emergency, despite the unconcern of everyone else around her. Yet when the illness arrives, a few isolated cases followed by an increasing number of deaths, will her plans be enough to save her boys? With the city on lockdown and the entire outside world a threat to their health, can they really survive locked inside? How far will someone go to protect their children? How much will they change?
The first thing I noticed about this book was the lack of traditionally numbered chapters. Instead we are given a calendar, with every new section marking off another day or two which has passed. I thought this was a really good technique as it gives us this sense of a countdown, the days to be passed until an impending and ominous event takes place. It fits the tone of the book nicely and is an obvious parallel to the family’s situation once Hannah locks the front door on the outside world. Although they are living in a state of emergency, Hannah tries to take control of her house, passing each day as they might normally do.
The main opening of the novel actually has quite a personable start. We are drawn quite quickly into this families life, exploring their dynamics and the personalities of these people. We’re given an insight into how they are before the illness begins to spread, as well as seeing their behaviour after they are on lockdown, which provides a very interesting look into how such dramatic events might alter a person. I think a lot of books which are apocalyptic or dystopian in nature tend to have a habit of starting the novel with a lot of action, or of using the in media res technique to throw us into the chaos and madness of an altered or changing world. In contrast this novel has a very normal opening which sticks to its characters. I think this is something I found throughout the novel as a whole; it’s a story much more intently focused on this one individual family and the things they might face, as opposed to the nature of the illness, how it came about or how it might be cured. In some ways its almost irrelevant, providing the chance to put this family in a new and strange situation to see how they react.
Indeed, the vast majority of this book takes place inside the family home. I though this was quite a refreshing take on this kind of genre, as quite often I find myself reading a novel which focuses on an individual who is outside, trying to survive in a dramatically altered world. In this book the main character of the mother wont even let her family out of the door; it’s a chance she is totally unwilling to take. I thought it was really intriguing to explore what this might do to a person and the ways in which being so excluded from society could determine or alter the actions someone may take. The setting makes it a very self contained novel, but I liked that about it. It creates this increasing sense of paranoia because of the very fact that we have such limited insight into what is happening to the rest of the world. The family are hiding away from the germs and contamination, quite literally unprepared to face the monster which lies in wait outside. I feel that this kind of technique could produce quite a claustrophobic novel, and indeed you can feel the walls of the house bearing down upon you, but it is executed with great effect.
I think the thing I most enjoyed about this novel was the debate it opened up about morals and the responsibility people have to each other during such a crisis. It’s amazing to consider how quickly someone can change their normal opinions, and things which are condemnable one day are suddenly required the next. There was one moral dilemma in this which was particularly absorbing, focusing on a young child, and I think that the very way in which some of the characters react to this shows how incredibly far removed they have become from their previous selves. Is it better to protect yourself, even at the expense of others? These are all themes which are considered.
Although there is not a massive amount of action, or indeed plot in this book, I would not say all of the characters are as fleshed out as they could be. The mother is by far the most arresting characters in this, with her very strong ideas and opinions regarding how her family should be kept safe overriding the majority of the novel. Likewise, there was nothing massively in depth or exquisitely detailed in this book which completely stole my interest, even though the execution was by no means poor.
The novel has a very steady and progressive pace, moving forwards with momentum even though nothing incredibly remarkable happens. I think having now finished this book it is something which I would describe as good. It’s not brilliant, it’s not awful; it good. I liked the writing style, which was incredibly easy to follow, and I liked the story we followed, but nothing astounded me or blew me away. I think this is a quiet novel which is styled quite well to suit the enclosed household atmosphere. In the end, I was just left wanting a bit more to sink my teeth into.
Publisher: Headline Review
Disclaimer – I was very kindly sent this book to review in exchange for a review. I will only ever post my own honest opinions and will never write a favourable review in exchange for a complementary book or product.