Manchester, 2025. Real food is scarce. Public services are run by crime syndicates. Drones guard the motorways. And someone is trafficking people across dimensions, stealing their memories, their voices, their names in the pursuit of profit. As dystopian near-futures go, Graft cuts close to the bone in every sense.
Matt Hill is a brave man. His first novel, The Folded Man, was published in 2013 and set in 2018. The follow-up, Graft, is only a few years further down the same timeline. If The Folded Man was quite clearly an alternate present by the time I got my hands on it, Graft feels a little too possible, a nightmare feeding on the horrors of the present: disposable people being stripped of humanity in a world that turns a blind eye.
Hill once again does an excellent job of exploiting our fault lines. Graft takes place on the far side of the riots that erupted across the country in The Folded Man; while there’s still nominally a government in (flooded) London and local councils in power across the regions, they’ve lost their grip. The country is in the hands of anyone with the wherewithal to seize it. Everyone else does what they have to to get by and it’s easier than ever to fall through the cracks.
Y doesn’t know where she came from or how weird her third arm is. She’s been rebuilt as state of the art biotech, her body adapted for strength and speed, her training turning her into a sentient weapon that acts on reflex. She has no idea what she’s capable of, meekly following orders. But she’s defective: neither the drugs nor the routine can eradicate her empathy. She slips out of her cradle at night to comfort the other voiceless, nameless subjects around her.
Sol is a washed-up car mechanic with a history of running from his troubles. He and his partner Irish work on the wrong side of the law, if the law still cared; stealing cars and buying blackmarket materials. When Irish jacks a posh Lexus, Sol is mostly worried it’s too easy to track. When he opens the boot to discover a three-armed woman bound inside it, her lips stapled together, he knows it means more trouble than they can deal with. But even Sol’s humanity is not so eroded as to let him just close the boot.
Their dystopian journey is more familiar than Brian’s in The Folded Man – a pair of misfits and their tarnished allies forge an unlikely connection and fight against a corrupt system. While the over-arching narrative is by the numbers, Matt Hill makes it his own with his elegant prose and his focus on the losses that drive his protagonists, the outcome always uncertain. I found the first half of the novel gripping, the parallel stories groping towards one another as a past tense narrative reveals Y’s journey between worlds and the present follows Sol’s flailing efforts to do the right thing.
Unfortunately, about two-thirds of the way in I found myself wondering if I’d missed a chapter. The deeply-held convictions and determination to see things through rang true to my expectations, but I couldn’t recall how the characters had arrived at them.
Y lacks agency for most of the novel, doing as her traffickers instruct and reacting on programming when threatened. When we see her act for herself, it’s always to care for someone else – comforting another; rescuing Fi; caring for Roy. And then she’s dedicated to a vengeance narrative that fits the over-arching structure, but still comes from nowhere. It’s not that she has no cause – we’re shown ample reasons why she should want revenge – it’s more that the point in time at which her attitude shifts is unclear.
The same struck me about both Sol and Roy. Sol stops trying to palm Y off to the emergency services and becomes set on tracking down her origins once he thinks she’s dead. It’s neither a self-preservation narrative nor even a belief they can bring her back (although there’s almost frenzied denial about her being dead). While he fights his instincts to help her, it still makes little sense that Sol wouldn’t greet her death with guilty relief at being off the hook.
We lose Roy’s point of view at the point where they join forces, creating an ambiguity a dystopian setting thrives on (and to be clear, I like this sort of ambiguity: we shouldn’t be sure whether Roy’s selling Sol and Y up the river). But without his voice, it wasn’t clear to me why Roy would help Sol when the only person he is beholden to (Y) appears to be dead.
I was tempted to blame myself; I’ve read Graft as I’ve come down with a virus, and read much of it late at night half-asleep (I don’t recommend this, by the way: you don’t need the dreams). Yet when I find myself staring into gaps in each of the protagonists’ motivation, I have to wonder. Was it really me? Or did the story skip a beat and move right along to where we all knew it had to go anyway, uncharacteristically glossing over the mess? (it certainly doesn’t gloss over anything else – Hill has never been afraid of making his readers squirm)
Regardless, I still found myself enjoying much of the novel and its desperate cast. I liked Mel’s defence of the girls of the Cat Flap, and her decision to make the business a true co-op: women selling sex on their own terms and for their own profit. I liked that Fi repeatedly called out her companions when they spoke over Y’s head as if she were an object (even if Fi, for all her empathy and projection, didn’t really understand how Y felt). I liked that Roy – a hitman – automatically prescribes tea to help Sol deal with his grief.
I liked that some things were resolved off-page, painlessly cutting through a potential narrative tangle (George R R Martin take note). I liked that this seemed to be a largely equal opportunities dystopia (after an initial hitch – the harridans in the mansion); yes, the main female characters are the abused Y Mel, a one-eyed madam, but the broader cast has with women as likely to fulfil any role as men, and Sol / Y’s race (and indeed Mel’s single eye) is a fact rather than a factor in their story. There is an apparent fridging to give our male characters common cause, but… Y isn’t actually dead. I liked Y herself, a lot, although I didn’t like that she lost her voice almost as soon as regained it.
Graft is easier reading than The Folded Man, but both are worthy of notice for subverting dystopian tropes. Its accessibility makes Graft easier to recommend, and I’m happy to say it stands alone – there are tidbits here for those who have read The Folded Man, but they’re background world-building rather than essential detail. Ultimately, I think Graft is flawed – the inconsistencies, plus a certain simplistic predictability at the climax – but I still found it gripping and I suspect I’ll get more out of it on a second read (and I can see myself rereading it). I’ve said before that I thought Matt Hill was one to watch: I for one will keep watching.
I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Graft is available now in hardback and e-book (and in paperback in the US). The paperback will be released in the UK
once it safely negotiates the Slope on February 11th.