Friday, September 4, 2015

The Girl's Guide to the Apocalypse - Daphne Lamb

The Girl’s Guide to the Apocalypse is Daphne Lamb’s debut novel. It sets out to explore the human response to the end of the world – whilst also bringing the funny.

The author gives us an interesting protagonist in Verdell, a young woman who spends her days doing data entry. She works at what she regards as a dead end job, in a company which appears to make products with no real use, with co-workers whose interpersonal interactions are…questionable at best. She has a boyfriend she’s not sure she wants to deal with, and operates a policy of using weapons-grade sarcasm in most conversations. The opening section of the text brings us into Verdell’s frustrating, baffling world, with its pettiness and aggravations, and makes it familiar.
And then, of course, the titular apocalypse happens. Quite what it is was never made clear. There’s mention of a virus. Then mutants. Then mushroom clouds. I must admit, the sheer vagueness of the end of civilisation did get a chuckle out of me. And our protagonist finds herself in a world she’s entirely unsuited to survive in – a sarcastic but hardly survival-trained slacker,  surrounded by idiots.

In that respect, Lamb absolutely nails the world. She shows us the world before, and it’s dead on, a fluorescent hellscape recognisable to anyone who ever sat at a desk. And the world after the disaster is a greatest hits of apocalypse fiction. There’s cannibal cults. Military quarantine camps. People living out of shattered shopfronts. It’s entirely possible to believe in this broken world, or at least to accept the images that Lamb evokes with some sterling prose. At the same time, it’s trying very hard to be funny. Sometimes this works. There’s a set of jokes about what different coloured armbands issued to evacuees represent at the start of the book, for example, which has me chuckling thinking about it now. Later, there’s a board put up in a quarantine camp where people can leave messages – not in an effort to contact loved ones, but as a simulacrum of Twitter.

There’s also places where the jokes fall flat. Some of this is the fault of the characters. I enjoyed Verdell’s baffled irony, and cynical dislike of everyone around her, but it didn’t manage to compensate for the supporting cast all suffering from slapstick levels of stupidity. In moderation, this actually works quite well as a comic device – and again, some of the interactions hit the funnybone perfectly. But there were an equal amount where Verdell’s rage at the oblivious idiocy or insanity of everyone around her didn’t manage to ring true.

The plot is largely centred around Verdell’s struggle to survive. The book is divided into episodic chapters, each given a title relevant to the titular “Girl’s Guide…”, with a section of Verdell’s story serving as an example. And the narrative flow works within the chapters, though there are a few stuttering moments – but these are more visible in the start and close of chapters. Still, Verdell’s journey around her battered city is quite an entertaining one at the core. That’s the thing about this book – there’s a good story lurking under everything. There’s flashes of a wry, clever humour that it would have been lovely to see more of – sparks of humour which hit their mark. It was great to see this, it’s a shame that much of the humour felt a little flat.

That said, there’s a lot to like about the book. It’s quirky. It gives us a not-often-seen point of view onto a world that’s ended. If the narrative can feel fragmentary, and some of the humour doesn’t quite work, that can be balanced by the times when it does, and you’re left chuckling over the sheer absurdity of it all. It’s not perfect, but the Guide is an interesting read, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Lamb has in store for us in the future.

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