Fiction - Kindle edition; 432 pages; Atlantic Books; 2013.
Without wishing to turn this blog into a political one, one of the things that increasingly worries me about living in 21st century Britain is how more and more public services are being outsourced and privatised. This means that the Government has absolved itself of any responsibility to provide services that are essential to the functioning of society — such as prisons, basic education, health care, security, rail travel and energy, to name but a few — and handed them over to companies which supply these services purely to make a profit. So, if you can't pay the (inflated) price for your winter fuel or your commute, bad luck. And even if the services remain free of charge at point of use, the quality can be dubious because the firm supplying the service is more interested in cutting costs than hiring the best (and usually more expensive) people for the job.
This theme is central to Patrick Flanery's novel Fallen Land, which reads like a dire warning about what happens when you let corporations run the world. It is a rather alarming and yet entirely prescient novel, and one that often had me nodding my head in recognition.
Set in an unspecified state of America in the aftermath of the 2008 credit crunch, this is a novel which is very much about dreams — pursuing them, believing in them and dealing with them when they fail — and the outfall of our twisted value system in which everything — and I mean everything — has a price.
Three main characters
Fallen Land largely focuses on three characters: the property developer who goes bust, the woman who is duped into selling her farm for development and the young family man who buys his dream home on that land.
Much of the novel hinges around property developer Paul Krovik, who loses his business in the wake of the financial collapse. When his ultra-modern house on a "ghost estate" is repossessed, he doesn't follow his wife and children back to Florida. Instead, he builds a hidden bunker underneath the house, moves in to it and lives there secretly, becoming increasingly more feral and more unhinged as time goes on.
Meanwhile, Julia and Nathaniel Noaielles and their young son, Copley, move from Boston to Paul Krovik's repossessed house — unaware that the developer is living beneath them. Julia, who is an ambitious scientist, is excited about the chance to have a home of their own, but from the get-go Nathaniel dreads the move — it never feels "right" for him — and his job at security firm NKK (modelled, I dare say, on G4S) fills him with unease (his special project is to find a way to make a profit out of prison labour). Similarly, Copley never settles into his strict, regimented private school and develops behavioural problems, which result in him seeing a psychiatrist.
A third character, Louise, has been thrown off the land which she once owned before she sold it to Paul for development. She befriends Copley and later becomes his nanny.
As you can probably guess, the plot is fairly straightforward. When strange things start happening in the house — furniture is moved, items go missing, windows are opened and slogans are daubed on the walls — it is only a matter of time before Paul's secret den is discovered instead of Copley being blamed for the mischief making. Yet the novel's structure is a little more complicated. It opens with Louise visiting Paul in prison, but the reader does not know who Paul is or why he is in prison. But you do know that Louise does not like him, which begs the question, why visit him?
The story then spools back to explain how these two characters came to be thrown together and how each, in turn, became involved with the Noaielles family. Each character's story unfolds in alternate chapters, all written in the third person except for Louise's version of events, which are told in the first person.
Despite the opening chapter, which is brooding and tense and written with an eye for dramatic flair, I found the narrative tension waxed and waned and I occasionally became bored by certain elements — Nathaniel's reluctance to stand up to his wife, and Paul's slow descent into madness, for instance — but am glad I persevered. The ending, when it comes, is rather brutal and shocking — and not at all what I expected (though clearly the signs where there all along).
I think my main problem with the novel was this: it didn't know if it was a psychological suspense novel or a domestic-drama-come-state-of-the-nation satire. In falling between the two, it didn't truly succeed in marrying the heightened narrative tension with all the (very well done) character development and social commentary.
Nonetheless, Fallen Land is an intriguing read, packed with ideas, themes and plenty of discussion points — and will no doubt have you scurrying to check the basement and lock the doors before you go to bed each night.
As an aside, if you've read Tana French's Broken Harbour — which is also set on a ghost estate with the owner of the house convinced someone or something is living among them — will find plenty to like here.