The Boy On The Bridge

Book cover: The Boy On The Bridge - M R Carey (a boy silhouetted against a red background)The Rosalind Franklin is Beacon’s best hope, on an epic journey around Britain seeking a natural inhibitor to the hungry plague. But it is as riven by politics as Beacon itself – can the crew put aside their differences or is humanity doomed to rip itself apart before the hungries even reach them?

I loved The Girl With All The Gifts, so I approached The Boy On The Bridge with a a truckload of anticipation. I was a little worried Boy was going to be about the Breakdown, but it’s set 10 years later (so 10 years before Girl)widening our understanding of the world after the Breakdown and answering some of the questions I had at the end of Girl.  Readers of Girl may draw their own conclusions about the success of the mission in hand, but Boy stands alone (although I’d still recommend reading Girl first – it benefits from having very little context).

I have a huge soft spot for motley crews in untenable situations, especially when they have deep divisions to overcome. While I sometimes complain about books making humanity our own worst enemy (give me some HOPE, universe!) I also have a big soft spot for precisely this trope, so long as it’s done well.

The balance is just right here, from the tarnished Colonel who obeys terrible orders with open eyes to the weaselly principal investigator who revels in the illusion of power, and the junior officer whose discipline is weakened not only by his temper, but by his disillusion. Boy won’t win awards for original characters (they’re all well-worn archetypes, including the eponymous boy), but Carey manages to imbue them with a respectable sort of humanity – even when I didn’t like them, I believed in them – and could be surprised by them.

That said, the supporting cast is pretty thin. If anything, the scientists come off worst: Sealey is supportive but otherwise nondescript, while Penny and Akimwe barely exist in one dimension let alone two (they might as well be wearing red shirts, as they’re clearly meat in the room). If the squaddies are little better defined, they at least have clear responsibilities to distinguish them (sniper, engineer, driver, quartermaster).

…none of which really matters. This story belongs to biologist Samrina Khan and her semi-adopted son Stephen Greaves, rescued on the long march out of London during the Breakdown. Where Rina (and the reader, benefiting from reading Stephen’s POV) see Stephen as a probably autistic genius, the rest of the crew see only an awkward teenager who rarely speaks, never makes eye contact and can’t bear to be touched. They doubt Rina’s tale that the eblocker gel their lives depend on was Stephen’s research rather than her own, and resent that she forced Beacon to send him on the mission (refusing to go unless he came with her).

This makes for a number of scenes in which I wanted to smack various of the cast for being needlessly cruel as their prejudices run away with them; and helps build sympathy for Stephen’s journey even as you watch him make terrible decision after terrible decision (although being unable to abide confrontation and not liking to talk to people are perhaps better reasons than characters are sometimes given for withholding information that clearly everyone would be better off knowing).

It is Stephen – inevitably – who encounters the hungry children and works out what they are; it’s also Stephen who works out what this might mean – both for Beacon and for the children. And so it’s Stephen, who holds himself apart but who is also actively excluded from much human society, whose moral and ethical framework is entirely logical but limited in its empathy, who is in a position to make decisions that might affect the survival of humanity.

The novel is often tense, sometimes harrowing and arguably entirely by the numbers – but as with Girl it transcends its tropes and stereotypes to work on its own terms. I enjoyed it immensely, not least for the brief glimpse of Melanie at the very end (although future rereads of Girl may have me screaming even harder at Caroline bloody Caldwell).

*****

The Boy on the Bridge will be released in paperback next month.