The Survival of Molly Southbourne

Book cover: The Survival of Molly Southbourne - Tade Thompson (a woman prays, blood trickling down her hands)There’s more to life than murder. After a lifetime of killing to survive, Molly must come to terms with what it really means to be Molly Southbourne…

Okay, stop right there. Have you read The Murders of Molly Southbourne? If not, scoot off and do that first, because there’s no way to talk about Survival without spoiling the end of Murders. Besides, we awarded it the Subjective Chaos Best Novella of 2017 for a reason – it deserves your eyeballs (and I say that as someone who doesn’t do body horror).

Survival picks up where Murders left off, but seen through a new pair of eyes: those of the molly to whom Molly told her story. Molly didn’t need to do that, of course: a molly knows what Molly knew when she created her. In time – assuming Molly doesn’t kill her – the molly recalls all Molly’s memories. The molly becomes Molly.

And for the first time, Molly has shown a molly mercy and let her live.

But our new Molly isn’t quite Molly Prime, which is both the arc of the story and the seed of my mild dissatisfaction. The opening scene of Survival also strips away any ambiguity from the end of Murders, which was another source of dismay; I’d have preferred not to be sure. I didn’t like Molly Prime, per se, but I was engaged by her terrible predicament, reading on the edge of my seat to see how she would cope with the challenges she faced. I enjoyed her pragmatism and her competence.

I found it harder to warm to the new Molly. I found her story more intellectually intriguing than involving. Molly doesn’t know how to be Molly. She knows she doesn’t want to murder mollies, but that isn’t a problem: only Molly Prime’s blood can create them. Our new Molly lacks purpose.

But even without mollies to fear, life as Molly Southbourne is complicated. Although she knows that she didn’t kill the mollies, she is racked with Molly Prime’s guilt for her many murders. Tamara, a woman with as many clones as Molly Prime is keen to contact her – or kill her. Unsurprisingly, Molly grows paranoid and prone to violence, sinking into depression and then mania.

It becomes increasingly unclear how much of what is happening is the product of Molly’s hallucinations. When she ends up sectioned, it’s a surprisingly realistic note in a tale of Russian experiments, secret services, and blood-born clones. And that, perhaps is what I like best about Survival: its determination to play straight, rejecting the lure of action tropes. As with Murders – and in spite of the body horror (which once again makes an appearance) – Survival is far mostly interested in the psychology of its conceit.

This comes to the fore in Tamara’s argument for a different way of life. Where Molly Prime murdered her clones, Tamara embraces hers. The tamaras co-operate, living and fighting as a unified force. It left me and Molly alike wondering about inevitabilities. Would the mollies have been so murderous if Molly Prime’s parents hadn’t killed them from the start? Combined with Molly as narrator, it’s also makes a powerful argument that each clone is a fully-fledged person in her own right, begging the question of just how terrible a thing Molly Prime did in murdering so many…

The Survival of Molly Southbourne delivers an intense if low-key psychological study of a woman struggling to forge an identity and a purpose whilst having all her beliefs challenged. Set against a backdrop of London in the early 90s (I never picked up that Murders was set in the 80s or even in the UK; the sudden focus on setting completely threw me), this feels a more grounded novella than Molly’s first blood-drenched outing in spite of the increased emphasis on Russian spies and government hitmen. While I don’t think it’s as successful as Murders on first reading – or rather, while I don’t subjectively like it as much – it has given me plenty to chew over, and I suspect it will drift to the top of my reread queue sooner rather than later…