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by Ewan Morrison
Harper Perennial, November 2022
386 pages
ISBN: 0063247321

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Stand-up comedians whose jokes following a catastrophe fall flat often ask their audiences, "Too soon?" It's a question that could perhaps have been asked about Scottish author Ewan Morrison's HOW TO SURVIVE EVERYTHING, which was first published in March 2021, at a time when the first covid-19 vaccine was only beginning to be widely administered. That pandemic we are told ended almost a decade before HOW TO SURVIVE begins, but it left a lasting mark on most of the characters, those who have chosen to retreat to a run-down but happily isolated dwelling somewhere in Scotland. Here they have devoted themselves to anticipating the worst from a future pandemic and working out ways to survive it.

The leader of the group is Ed Crowe, a former investigative journalist and member of a group investigating the status of artificially produced viruses in the aftermath of Covid19. He has a history of mental illness not independent of the fact that the disturbing conclusions of the panel were suppressed by "the government." Subsequently he became a convinced prepper, determined to survive the coming catastrophe. To that end he found an appropriate property, outfitted it to withstand disaster, and recruited followers. Here he seems less successful as the group he winds up with consists of Meg, a former drug addict he found in a support group, her teen-aged son Danny, and Ray, a recovering alcoholic. There is also Kade, a rather frightening woman, whose presence is something of a mystery. She doesn't come inside much and acts as a kind of enforcer, but fades off the scene for no particular reason toward the end. Though Ed has all the respect and status of a cult leader, this is a very tiny cult.

Ed is divorced from his wife and has limited access to his two children, Hayley, fifteen years and some months old when the book opens, and Ben, aged eight and suffering from an eating disorder which Hayley attributes to the stresses of his being the child of divorced parents. It is Hayley who is the narrative voice of the book, or at least is intended as such, but her control of both point of view and tone is frequently disrupted by passages in which her father's authoritative if somewhat batty declarations appear. She claims to be writing a survival guide based on her experiences as both a hostage to and participant in her father's survivalist obsessions. The result is a peculiar instability of tone - Hayley can both negotiate complex sentences appropriate to an academic article while being incapable of handling simple grammatical structures. The number of times she writes "Me and Ben did..." is irritatingly high.

Using Hayley as the narrator raises another consideration. Morrison has written several novels in which the central character is a cult-raised young woman. But this time Morrison is less than successful in speaking as a fifteen year old girl, especially as the novel lurches toward its problematic ending. In the tiny society surrounding her father, Hayley has only one age peer, Danny, who is seventeen. The serious questions Hayley has been seeking to resolve, questions that are raised by the credibility of her father's conviction that the end is nigh, fade and simple sexual desire takes over.

Since current political antagonisms seem rooted in an astonishing inability for the two sides to reach any agreement whatever regarding objective fact, the reader of a dystopian novel dealing with people attempting to figure out how to behave during a plague might expect the author at least to drop a hint or two about the degree to which the survivialist characters were justified in their behaviour. Or to put it more plainly - is it reasonable to prepare for a world in which governments are determined to infect large populations with manufactured viruses that will carry off considerable numbers of people and completely destroy all social norms?

The critical question at the heart of this novel is precisely whether Ed Crowe is actually sane. But Morrison won't answer that one. Instead we get a rather loopy reassurance that love is a good thing, especially when embodied in a conventional marriage.

In a piece that appeared in CrimeReads in November of this year, Morrison reveals that he and his wife did in fact become preppers a few years ago. They (like Ed Crowe) weren't all that good at the practicalities, but this novel did come out of the experience. Though they apparently left their bunker behind in time to experience all the stresses of our actual recent plague, Morrison at least still appears to harbour a certain fondness for the sense of superiority that comes with the belief that either the government or anarchist hordes will be out to get you when society founders but you will have your own resources to survive attack. The title of the book promises advice on how to survive everything, but none of its characters are changed in any serious way by their newly adopted way of life, nor do they contemplate any other form of social existence than what got them where they are in the first place. Some one, somewhere should be asking if it's really worth living like this, with no outside stimuli, no books, no music, and (oops) evidently no successful crops. When Adam and Eve took their first faltering steps away from the Eden they had lost, the "world was all before them, where to choose." These survivalists are stuck with one another, behind a razor wire fence they have themselves erected until they run out of dried beans or someone comes by with a bigger crossbow.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

She's been editing RTE since 2008.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, November 2022

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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