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Book Review

Book Cover

California (Hardback)


Author: Edan Lepucki
Publisher: Little Brown
RRP: £14.99
ISBN: 978 1 4087 0471 4
Publication Date: 07 August 2014

America is in its last death throws. The country suffers extreme weather and human beings default stance, of making a problem into a tragedy, have brought the country to its knees. The rich have retreated into enclosed towns, where their wealth proves some protection. In the cities things continue to break down, including the rule of law. Cal and Frieda flee the crumbling Los Angeles, trying to find safety by living in the wilderness. However, the imminent arrival of a baby changes everything, and they must head back towards what is left of civilisation in search of help...

California (2014. 389 pages) is the new novel from first time novelist, Edan Lepucki.

The story is very claustrophobic. Chapters alternate between Cal and Frieda's points of view. It’s difficult to discern the writer's intentions in creating the story. If it was to highlight the damage that we are doing to the planet, then she has found a peculiarly oblique way, as most of what caused the downfall of American civilisation is either only hinted at or described in little more than surface detail. Nor do we discover if the problems are worldwide as the book mostly concentrates on one couple in a small specific location. I can’t help but feel that a wider perspective would have done the book a world of good.

Sure poor weather had killed many, but if the intention was to describe how weather can wreck a civilisation, Lepucki would have done worse than read J. G Ballard's The Wind from Nowhere or The Drowned World. What mostly comes over from the book is that whilst individuals may try to live a moral life, collectively we are a slightly mental, self-destructive species. Even when the world has gone to pot there are characters, in the novel, which seem intent on making a bad situation worse.

Through the two main characters we catch only a glimpse of what has happened to the world and the truth is that your level of enjoyment, in reading the story, is very much down to how much you like/empathise with the central characters, because you’re going to spend the whole book peeking inside of their heads. It's best to think of the story as a puzzle, as it works best on this level. The two spend a lot of their time reminiscing, which introduces characters who you haven’t and may never meet. Initially, I found this portion of the book the least interesting, after all who wants to spend time with a couple so wrapped up in the past that their thoughts meander there on a regular basis?

If the start of the book feels stilted or even a little bit dull, then all these ruminations start to pay off when they are forced to seek help when Frieda discovers that she may well be pregnant. It's at this point the entire info dump comes into its own and the middle section of the book becomes a tense cat and mouse situation, where her very condition becomes a problem.

By the time I came to the end of the book I have to say that it was an enjoyable read, Of course, it could have had a tighter first third, but then the payoff would not have been as good as it was.

The book does have its faults and some of the internal logic does not hold up to close inspection. The communities where the rich have retreated to, a sort of Stepford Wives idea, with women tending home, while the men folk toil in offices, doesn’t answer the question of how do they maintain their levels of wealth when trade has almost been reduce to bartering?

But these are minor points in an artistically plotted story which is less post apocalypse, more apocalypse ongoing story.


Charles Packer

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