Clade by James Bradley

Titan Books | 2017 (5 September) | 301p | Review copy | Buy the book

Clade by James BradleyOn a summer solstice, some time in the not too distant future, scientist Adam Leith waits by the phone in Antarctica to learn if his wife Ellie’s fertility treatment has been successful at last. As he reflects on the meaning of his marriage in his life, the frozen landscape around him is changing. But it’s not just Antartica. The Earth is being irreparably altered by extreme temperatures and weather. One can only wonder at what sort of world this child might be born into.

Moving through the years, we witness the experiences of Adam and Ellie, their child and their grandchild, as the world is battered by storms and heat, as the birds stop singing and are lost from the skies, as the floods rise and as death arrives in the form of a great plague.

Clade is a novel in several parts. Much of it focuses on Adam, his wife Ellie and their grandson Noah, presenting snippets of their increasingly changed lives, mostly in Australia but also in a Britain battered by storms and rising waters. These chapters are almost like short stories, complete in themselves, presenting different perspectives and different elements of these years of crisis.

This structure does, in my opinion, distance the reader from the emotional impact of what we’re witnessing but it does serve to illustrate the many ways in which this slow-moving apocalypse affects people, nature and the Earth itself. There is a particularly poignant chapter in which Ellie is drawn to bees and the man who cares for them. We know how poorly bees have been doing in reality in recent years and this book gives us a reminder of just how precious they are and how wonderful they are. For me, the most touching moments were those when characters reflect on how quiet the woods are now that the birds have gone. What a devastating state of affairs.

Noah is arguably the standout character of the novel. Autistic and isolated in several key ways, he must cope with constant shifts in the best way he can. And as he grows he finds that comfort in astronomy and the constancy of the stars. He is beautifully drawn. And a source of hope.

Science fiction is present in lots of little ways – in the technology of people’s ‘feeds’, in the virtual reality games they play, and also in the development of AIs. But there can be no doubt at all that this is a novel with a warning to the present. Just look at what can happen. There are moments of trauma and crisis – such as storm and plague – but in between there is the slow inevitable decline to which people must continually re-accustom themselves.

There is room for development in each of the chapters or stories of the novel – these chapters are very personal and, as such, venture little beyond the experiences of the characters except through media reports – but I was spellbound and horrified in equal measure. Not because of the shocks and thrills of what happens but because of its quiet inevitability and the reasonableness and calm with which characters cope. We hear of refugee camps and gunbattles in the streets, but this goes on outside the walls of the novel. The world we’re given is recognisably ours.

Clade, such a beautifully written and expressive novel, is both elegant and powerful. It is quietly terrifying. It gave me nightmares for the two nights that I read it. Horrible nightmares. So to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of reading Clade wouldn’t be true. In these uncertain times, it spoke to me and it frightened me. It is bleak – but not without some hope, not least in the resilience and caring of its main characters – yet I found its sadness harder to deal with. Nevertheless, I was gripped by it and troubled by it on a scale that I don’t often experience.

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