Welcome once more to Authoright’s Spring Reading Week 2018. Today I’m delighted to welcome Joe Treasure with a guest post and extract from The Book Of Air. Here’s the book info…
Retreating from an airborne virus with a uniquely unsettling symptom, property developer Jason escapes London for his country estate, where he is forced to negotiate a new way of living with an assortment of fellow survivors. Far in the future, an isolated community of descendants continue to farm this same estate. Among their most treasured possessions are a few books, including a copy of Jane Eyre, from which they have constructed their hierarchies, rituals and beliefs. When 15-year-old Agnes begins to record the events of her life, she has no idea what consequences will follow. Locked away for her transgressions, she escapes to the urban ruins and a kind of freedom, but must decide where her future lies. These two stories interweave, illuminating each other in unexpected ways and offering long vistas of loss, regeneration and wonder. The Book of Air is a story of survival, the shaping of memory and the enduring impulse to find meaning in a turbulent world.
Spring in The Book of Air
I’m writing this (a couple of weeks before it’s due) in South London. A snow storm softly rages outside my window. Icy winds are blowing from Siberia. A freak rise in temperature at the poles seems to have thrown the Jetstream into reverse, plunging Europe into historically low temperatures.
There are people in my novel who care deeply enough about this kind of climatic disruption that they’re willing to sacrifice the human population to save the planet. Personally I’d call this throwing the baby out with the bathwater. But to tell the story I wanted to tell – of an isolated community in the future, the descendants of survivors of a global catastrophe – I had to allow the genocidal activists to do their worst.
My characters in the future have inherited a seventeenth century manor house called Talgarth Hall with some cottages and farmland and agricultural tools. They also have a copy of Jane Eyre to which they attribute sacred significance. Out of all these things they have, over the generations, constructed their own peculiar way of life. Their routines are deeply integrated into the seasons. After the endurance of winter, spring comes as a time of healing and reassurance.
Early in the novel, 15-year-old Agnes, who records her experiences in an illicit journal, is in trouble for spying on a secret ritual. The Mistress, who maintains order in the village, fetches her from her cottage. Though unable to enjoy the April weather, she is acutely aware of it and what it means:
“The air was moist, with a fresh sprinkle of rain. I knew I should be anxious for the grass, which would soon enough be ripe for cutting and in need of sunshine to dry it. But the grass meant nothing to me. I caught the laughter of the women fetching water below the bridge and wished it was only water I had to carry. The Mistress led me in silence through the gateway and up the drive to the Hall. She is hunched and narrow, and sour as a cider apple. Already I’m taller than she is. I could have knocked her to the ground. But I walked meekly behind and knew I would stand as meekly for a beating. The damp breeze grew stronger, and all across the lawn the grass dipped and straightened. Already the feathery heads reach higher than my knee, with pale pink flowers showing among the green. The near growth leaned out heavy with seed to wet my skirt.”
For the ancestors of the villagers, the random survivors who gather at Talgarth Hall, although their lives have been blighted by unimaginable losses, some possibility of joy emerges. As recorded by Jason, the owner of the house, they live at the mercy of the seasons, but there is room for celebration, unexpectedly enhanced on one occasion by hallucinogenic mushrooms:
“We talk about the day’s work and what must be done tomorrow. Aleksy has some news. One of the two sows, which he found rooting in the wood and enticed home with a bucket of milk and peelings, is definitely pregnant. There’s a surge of optimism. I listen to the others talking and begin to feel better. With the first frost we’ll slaughter one of the cows and roast joints of beef. Next year, if we survive the winter, we’ll have potatoes and parsnips and we’ll grow tomatoes in the greenhouse. And by the autumn there’ll be bread if we live that long. And sooner than that we’ll make a churn if the cows keep giving milk, and fry our mushrooms in butter, and our eggs too if the hens and geese keep laying, and we’ll experiment with better ways to make cheese, hard nutty cheddar that will sit in the cellar with the apples and feed us like kings all through next winter. Our ambitions grow extravagant. I begin to talk as freely as the others. I eat Django’s strange stew and feel my resistance slide away.”
Jason eventually begins to glimpse the gains among the losses even in the sober light of day, principally in the fierce human bonds forged through these shared troubles, but also in the resurgence of nature:
“I hear all the birds of the morning – a riotous clamour – and nothing now to disturb or silence them, no traffic, no tractor or chainsaw, no fighter plane, no road drill, nothing across the wide expanse of fields and woods and wasteland and distant abandoned streets – just birdsong. The air is dense with the sound.”
Jason remembers the virus that has wiped out most of the population, dwelling on its strangest symptom.
We learnt the stages to watch for. We knew their names almost before we knew that we knew them. The sweats, the staggers, the blessing, the burn, the pit. Only the virus itself resisted naming, until it didn’t need a name, because it had become the only topic of news or conversation.
It was the third stage that held our attention, the stage we were all induced to call the blessing, whether we used the word with awe or with irony, whether we whispered it or spat it out quotation marks and all. However we viewed it, the sight of it took us by the throat – always the same unmistakable thing and always unique. A moment of grace descending at last, too late, on every sufferer. Some talent previously unexpressed leaping towards consummation. People who had never drawn drew on pavements in whatever they could lay their hands on – mud, ketchup, plaster dust. The impulse held them sometimes for minutes only, sometimes for an aching half-hour of absorbed effort before the body rebelled. Often the impulse was to sing or pull music out of some instrument, intended or improvised. They might be thwarted by lack of materials, or by the collapse of the nervous system as the staggers merged into the burn. But the urge was always there.
It terrified us, as the thought of the Last Judgment or the Rapture terrifies true believers, with a terror that stops the breath and makes the hairs rise and the mind go blank. It was the only counterweight to the mundane labour of death. Because it wasn’t long before mass graves became necessary. Bodies were loaded on to trucks, carted in skips, lugged or wheeled to collection points. Soldiers and armed police patrolled with megaphones and automatic weapons, commandeering vehicles and food. Self-appointed militias cohered and fragmented. There was no shortage of guns. The dead became landfill, were stacked on abandoned construction sites, loaded into stadiums for burning, were left where they lay in empty houses or dumped like bin bags on the pavement.
People became obsessed with the science of it. They’d stumble hollow-eyed from their computers sounding off about processes of synaptic transmission. Or they got religion. Theological disputes sprang up among people who’d been godless all their lives. The blessing had a divine origin, they said, that was obvious. But were we witnessing a rent in the veil between our illusory world and the eternal? Or were the sufferers clinging ever more ferociously to the wheel, their egos clamouring on the shore of oblivion?
Others sneered at these squabbles. It was never about us. No carbon-based life form could hope to grasp the complexity of the event. To the invading race, the victims of the blessing were nothing more than an instrument, a keyboard. Minds greater than ours comprehended these individual acts of creation as notes – not even notes – harmonics within notes within melodies within symphonies of meaning, and in this way communicated with each other through our dying gestures.
And some said fuck you to all this talk, ready with chisels and bread saws to slash any throat that stood between them and their next meal.
Raised sixth in a family of nine, Joe Treasure enjoyed a capriciously Bohemian childhood. Having received his educational grounding at the hands of Carmelite priests, he escaped to Cheltenham Grammar School where he excelled only in music and art. His architectural ambitions were thwarted by low grades in maths and physics. The local college of further education allowed him to pursue more congenial subjects, after which he surprised everyone, not least himself, by winning a place to read English at Keble College, Oxford.
Settling in Monmouth, Wales, Joe taught English and ran an innovative drama programme. He moved to Los Angeles at the turn of the millennium to join his wife, Leni Wildflower. Temporarily unemployed, he set about fixing up Leni’s house and turned to writing fiction.
In 2004, at the end of George W Bush’s first explosive term in office, they relocated to London where Joe studied creative writing at Royal Holloway. He wrote The Male Gaze, a novel that drew on his American experience, mingling social comedy with political drama. Offered a two-book publishing contract with Picador, he went on to explore the divided loyalties of an Anglo-Irish family in Besotted, a novel that celebrates the enduring bonds of brotherhood.
The Book of Air is Joe’s first venture into speculative fiction. He and Leni currently live in Balham, London.
Check out Joe’s website for a short trailer with readings and interviews.