A gay man questions Britain’s repressive new political regime in this satirical, speculative novel by Cacoyannis, author of Finger of an Angel (2019).
The year is 2030, and 70-year-old Englishman Anthony Pablo Rubens is about to receive an unexpected special delivery that could change the course of his life. It’s a summons informing him that he’s been selected for “Museum Service”—and he doesn’t know exactly what that entails. It turns out to be a scheme introduced by the Government Party, which came to power in the United Kingdom with a landslide victory in 2024 in the wake of a viral pandemic that “exhausted the world.” The Party offered simple and deadly solutions, inciting racial hatred and promising the abolition of a trial by jury. Museum Service, it’s revealed, involves uprooting Anthony’s life—possessions and all—and exhibiting him in a cubicle in the People’s Museum, where party members can observe him going about a daily routine. The narrative flips back half a century to show Anthony as a young man navigating London’s gay scene; one night he has a chance encounter with Joe Devin, who will later become a Government Party minister. The novel also describes Anthony’s loving relationship with his ailing partner, Malcolm, and his closeness to his sister Eunice, whose political leanings echo those of their grandfather, who fought against Franco during the Spanish Civil War. Things become tense when Anthony’s inquisitiveness results in his being labeled a “pedant” by the government and when he learns that Eunice was similarly summoned shortly before her death.
Immediate comparison will be made with the work of George Orwell, whose work is specifically referenced: “Mr Rubens suddenly felt terribly alone, living unloved and unnoticed in a nightmare worse than 1984.” However, this is by no means an ersatz rewrite of a literary classic. Cacoyannis tells a story that feels both fresh and alarming in how it identifies and amplifies concerns of our time, as when it shows life becoming anodyne as a consequence of surveillance: “bioelectric cars whizzed past with hardly a sound, at set speeds that could not be exceeded. Cyclists only cycled in the designated lanes. Smart phones weren’t so smart any more, but threatened to be smart enough to spy.” For the author, love is the antidote to a complicit society rendered indifferent to authoritarian rule. Cacoyannis’ elegant and tenderly observant prose captures how individual lives interconnect: “Anthony’s ‘gift’ seemed to always cast life in a shadow, Malcolm’s was to inundate its mysteries with light.” In previous works, the author has painstakingly created psychologically complex casts of characters, but he doesn’t apply the same level of detail to the minor players here. This is less important, however, because in this novel, the primary focus is excavating the horrors of a society rather than the internal worlds of diverse individuals. Overall, Cacoyannis has written a thoroughly gripping novel, using the rhetoric of a real-life pandemic to fashion a chilling vision of an abnormal “new normal” to come.
An intriguing, timely, and terrifying portent of life after Covid-19.
Pub Date: today
Page Count: 269
Review Posted Online: Nov. 16, 2020
Kirkus Reviews Issue: today