Lina fled London to work for a European conservation corps, but her fragile peace shatters when her ex is arrested for assassinating a Minister. While Lina tries to extract her family from London, the Minister’s family also flee to the mountain reserve she works on. Everyone has deadly secrets – but will they kill to preserve them?
I’d been trying to read Lorraine Wilson’s masterful dystopian debut since last summer, thwarted by a review format that was only readable on a device that consistently triggered migraines (gotta love being light sensitive). Tantalisingly, I could read just enough to know I desperately wanted to read more, drawn in by Wilson’s evocative prose and damaged characters. When the gorgeous hardback showed up in the Christmas sale, I grabbed a copy – and having finally finished it, expect to see This Is Our Undoing on my Best of 2022 because damn this is good.
Welcome to the day after tomorrow: cities are drowning; nowhere is safe from extreme weather events; hearts and borders are harder than ever; both fascist governments and powerful private organisations have black ops teams with terrifying reach. It’s a difficult time to be a private citizen; let alone a politically-active one. Lina has left all that behind to work for the Environment Security Force, stepping away from resistance against London State’s fascist government to try and save the planet. But even in the remote heights of the Romanian mountains, peace is hard to find.
This is a book that delivers tension from the get-go, opening with a confrontation over a dead deer and human rights: ESF are demanding the locals accept electronic tags if they wish to stay in the villages that now fall inside the reserve’s boundaries. The mountains are a porous border, a rare gap in Europe’s ubiquitous surveillance networks that offers an opportunity for smuggling goods – and people – that the locals have no interest in giving up.
The opening scenes establish just how isolated Lina and Thiago are, and shows the trust between them in spite of the secrets each openly harbours. No questions asked? No lies told. The strength and depth of their relationship was one of many things I loved about the book. One-legged Thiago is quiet and cynical and frighteningly badass, with a skewed sense of the world that lets him tell Lina that something happened in London. Nothing bad, just an assassination. Lina is all sharp edges and concealed hurts, unhesitatingly pragmatic yet unexpectedly vulnerable. They make a formidable team, but there’s a very real question of whether their alliance can survive the truths they choose not to speak about.
When the murdered Minister’s family arrive, Wilson ratchets the tension up further. His son Xander has submerged his grief in vengeful rage; a talented hacker with no fear of consequences (why would this child of privilege fear anything?), he’s determined to uncover his father’s murderer. His investigation into Lina’s ex can only expose her family – and once revealed, London State will not hesitate to hunt them down. Lina knows she needs to act, but she hesitates, caught between her fear, her sympathy for Xander’s grief and her growing affection for his adopted brother, otherworldly Kai.
For a book shaped by hatred and vengeance, This Is Our Undoing has a great deal of heart. Having spent his life paying the price for supporting the choices of those he loves, Lina’s father tells her early on love is the greatest thing we can do and this idea of love as a form of resistance resonates throughout the book. Changing the world by making life better for another person is a gift we each have. This Is Our Undoing shows it again and again, offering love as an answer to fear whether it’s showing a small kindness to a hurting child or Lina’s unhesitating embrace of her new sister when Genni (and oh, how I loved that this book so casually embraces diversity; Genni being trans is no more a plot point than Thiago only having one leg – it’s just who they are).
Wilson’s prose is spare, but given to beautiful metaphors that draw the natural world into the human drama. The result is a narrative deeply rooted in its surroundings, peppered with references to changing light and birdsong. The mountain and its forests become almost characters in their own right; concealing threats and a growing sense of supernatural menace without ever losing their serene beauty. Lina, Thiago and the Wileys are just passing through; the forest will outlive their confrontation regardless of the outcome.
The result is a novel as lyrical as it is deeply-felt. Wilson’s storytelling is delicate: she introduces the characters and their conflicts and creates space for the reader to react (comparing notes with a friend, I found they loathed Xander, while I felt a reluctant pity; he is exactly as awful as you would expect him to be). Similarly, she makes few concessions to world-building, often leaving the reader to infer details from observations made by characters who have no need to spell things out. Some readers may find this frustratingly vague, but to me this future was recognisable enough that much more would have felt heavy-handed.
Overall, I loved the way I felt invited to read This Is Our Undoing with my heart and my intuition; and it – inevitably – undid me with its central theme of love vs fear. The sense of looming threat stops this ever being an easy read – even if the emotional stakes weren’t sky high – but it remains a beautiful one from start to finish, and one that I highly recommend. A remarkable debut that deserves to find the widest possible audience.
I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review, and subsq bought the gorgeous hardback.