Dystopian novels are enjoying something of a renaissance. According to Goodreads, the number of dystopian-themed books is currently at its highest since the 1960s. Women writers seem to be leading the way. Suzanne Collin's award-winning young adult novel, The Hunger Games, was released as a film earlier this year. Just a few months ago, I reviewed Julie Zeh's acclaimed political thriller, The Method, that plays on our current obsession with health and mass surveillance. Helen Smith's The Miracle Inspector, a disturbing portrait of England in the not too distant future, is just as memorable.
I first met Smith at Freedom from Torture (formerly The Medical Foundation) when she volunteered as a creative writing mentor. She told me that the experience of refugees was the inspiration behind The Miracle Inspector. She wanted to imagine what it was like to arrive somewhere as an asylum seeker. As she said in a recent interview: "I began to wonder what it would be like if I could no longer live in London and had to flee. What kind of reception would I get if I turned up in another place without money, and with little cultural understanding of the place where I was seeking sanctuary? What if I had led an insular, protected life and didn't know enough about how the world worked to know who to trust?"
Her protagonists are a young urban couple who long to escape London for Cornwall. But their dream holiday is not on hold because of a lack of funds or the inability to get time off at the same time. Lucas has a good job at "the Ministry" and, anyway, Angela is not allowed to work (women are confined to the house). The problem is that England has been partitioned. Trying to leave London is a criminal offence.
Intertwined with their story is that of a middle-aged poet known only as Jesmond. Poetry and theatre are banned and have been forced underground. Jesmond, who has the stature of a folk hero, continues to read from his works with fatal consequences. Astutely, Smith recognises that the suppression of free expression is the first act of tyrants and I found his tragic fate particularly resonant.
In its feminist angle, The Miracle Inspector is reminiscent of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. Smith draws attention to the subjugation of women in a repressive culture. Not only are her female characters banned from working, they can only leave their homes in a burka or by clandestinely dressing as men.
However, The Miracle Inspector is not all doom and gloom and is, at times, very funny. Smith pokes fun at the rule makers: "Lucas didn't like living in a dictatorship, as he did now, but he could see how democracy could be a bit of a burden when you were expected to obey the will of the people and the people turned out to be such a bunch of fools." Lucas's job is to 'investigate' claims of miracles, in fact "the right to believe in miracles was enshrined in the constitution." More often than not he is contacted by lonely women on their own all day, who are convinced that they can see human faces in their food.
But what I like best about Smith's writing is her sheer exuberance. She has an extraordinarily rich imagination that never fails to surprise and delight.