As we speak my mother-in-law is planning for the apocalypse. Or, at least, three days’ worth of the apocalypse, which she is expecting to coincide (perhaps fittingly enough) with her husband’s sixtieth birthday. Her laundry is a-glug with bottled water, her pantry stocked with starches galore, and she’s planning on hitting the supermarket the day before the end of the world to stock up on some fine cuts of meat to see her through. (The possible lack of power that may well occur along with the end of the world, and the fact that three days’ worth of food is probably insufficient has somehow escaped her, but nevermind. She’ll be an end-of-days gourmand in the meantime.)
So given all of this I could identify a little bit with Jo Morgan, the ultra-wimpy, odds-are-against-us protagonist of Kate Harrison’s The Self-Preservation Society, who spends the better part of her teens hiding tinned food and bandaids under her bed while keeping on top of the latest Cold War news, and pretty much continues in this deathly dull risk averse manner until bad luck strikes in the form of a hit-and-cycle incident. Or at least, I tried to identify with Jo, because to be honest, in the name of my own self-preservation, I was very close to setting this one down several times along the way.
The experience of reading The Self-Preservation Society is unfortunately a little akin to opening a dented tin of baked beans using a left-handed can opener, a skill that my mother-in-law is presently working on. It can be done, but it’s going to be a whole lot slower, messier, and involve a good deal more backtracking than you might expect.
My first indication of this was, well, the first chapter actually, after which I checked the blurb to see whether the book wasn’t the chick lit I thought I’d purchased but rather some strangely packaged YA. You see, our first introduction to Jo is during her high school years, and involves her doing a Henny Penny and freaking out about the end of the world in a science lab. And then with a turn of the page we’re fast-forwarded to the future, but bafflingly so–so bafflingly so that I had to reread the first few pages of the next chapter a total of four times to figure out who on earth was who, how old they were, and how they were related to each other. We hadn’t even reached Jo’s bicycle-induced brain trama and I was already having frontal lobe issues of my own.
After Jo lands in a coma thanks to her lycra-clad would-be assassin/saviour angel (her perspective varies as the book progresses), things do pick up a little, and not just because Jo finally begins to exhibit some sort of spine and, you know, live her life. The past-present switching, which is excruciatingly messy to begin with, slowly begins to come together as a plot device, and although it’s employed too often and with too great a reliance on coincidence throughout the book in order to maintain the temporal alternation, the later switches aren’t quite as jarring as the initial ones. The problem, however, becomes one of content rather than one of structure. The flashbacks are being used to show us (and Jo herself, really) just how Jo came to be the scaredy-cat individual she is today, and they do add depth to her character and to those of her family. But I just couldn’t buy the reasoning behind these triggers.
I think the issue is that there’s a disconnect between the oh-so-silly way that Jo’s omniphobia (yes, yes, made up word, but the chapters are all titled with bizarre phobia names, so I thought I might get in on the act) is depicted and the fairly serious nature of what triggered it all. It seems uncomfortable, almost, to be crowing away at her bubble-girl approach to life on the one hand, and then to be hurtled back in time to deal with illness, infidelity, and political issues. It feels a bit like an awkward silence should ensue, like during my father-in-law’s sherry-induced speech earlier this year in which he called his wife a singing monkey (NB, I’m not sure if my mother-in-law has left room for him in the apocalypse bunker).
Still, although I found this book had a bit of the Neverending Story about it in that it keeps on like a Duracell bunny (impressive for a book that comes in at 350 pages), there were some elements that I quite enjoyed. Frisky, Jo’s octogenarian partner-in-crime, offers plenty of fun and frivolity with the odd bit of poignancy (although what on earth was that scene with the hot coals? Really!), and his surly grandson adds a bit of intrigue to the mix as well, as did Jo’s doctor. At least, before he went about messing with doctor-patient conduct rules. Ahem. These help temper the boorish, obnoxious, get-off-the-page-will-you Dennis, Jo’s “cohabitee”, a man whose powers of readerly frustration know no bounds; as well as Jo’s best friend Lorraine, whose presence adds very little to the book beyond being a Very Obvious Representative of Bacchanal Abandon, ie, Your Opposite, Jo.
In all, this one was a disappointment for me, though I have to admit that from now on I’m going to take a page out of (pre-accident) Jo’s book and be very, very cautious when it comes to buying novels purely based on the fact that they were on sale for $1.95 from Booktopia. Especially if the end of the world is nigh and I only have a month’s worth of reading left before I’m stuck in a bunker with my mother-in-law.
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Other books by Kate Harrison: