If I’m not lonely, then I’m adrift. It means a lot to feel wanted, to understand your place in another person’s world. Who is Freya to Shep? Who is Freya to anyone?
The trajectory of the first part of this novel is one I always find potentially interesting: a focus (in this case a bunker in the Lake District) and two people’s lives converging on it from very different places. It’s set in what feels like a fairly near future, with self-driving cars and a lot of other fancy tech, but our two protagonists, Freya and Shep, are in reassuringly orthodox jobs; a journalist and a steeplejack. The author clearly has some knowledge of both trades, or has done some cracking research, because Shep’s working life in particular is conveyed very vividly indeed: speaking as someone with a visceral fear of heights, I found it downright scary at times.
Shep edges out from the platform until only his toes are left. He opens the biter’s mouth and takes up his starting position. He swallows and leans back, legs like a bipod, lines good and taut. Kapper feeds out rope until Shep stands fully horizontal off the platform lip. The sun on his bare arms is close to unbearable.
‘Holding,’ Shep says. ‘Guy cable’s two metres down.’ And he commits one sole to the beams that support the platform, heart raging. Past his excess rope and dangling gear, the tower’s first hundred metres taper gracefully into the base pad. The merging blue-gold horizon out to sea. Eyes up, and he almost can’t stand the beauty of it: a shimmering curve rolling up, up, up for another nine hundred metres into the heavens, his angle giving it the appearance of a solid blade. The rush is acute.
Shep’s hobby is “urbex”, exploring man-made structures, often illegally and always dangerously. Freya meets him because she becomes interested in a story she covers about the death of a man, Stephen, who was also into this. It emerges that Stephen and his girlfriend Alba had explored a deserted bunker, where Shep and Freya also go. This bunker is on land owned by a couple, whose young daughters and gardener have already apparently seen strange things there and which is a focus for interest from authorities and others.
What is going on in the bunker, and what effect it has on those who go there, is the book’s central mystery and obviously I shall avoid spoilers about it. But there are other hooks, particularly in the first part of the novel: how will Shep and Freya connect; how will Freya reconcile a sense of morality with invasive journalism; will Shep, whose liking for alcohol is not the best match with a job involving heights, survive his next ascent? In the second part, where the effects of what happened in the bunker are becoming more obvious, survival in general is an urgent question.
I was reading online, without what Jane Austen calls the tell-tale compression of the pages ahead to warn me the end was nigh, which is probably why it came as a mighty surprise. When I saw an acknowledgements page, I actually thought I must have clicked twice, or that maybe something had been left out of the document. Reading again, I could see what was going on: it’s one of those books where the choice of end-point is always going to be arbitrary; in fact in some ways the end is a beginning.
This novel is in a genre (futuristic, borderline SF) that I don’t normally read much. But I don’t think one would have to be a devotee of that genre to find it enjoyable and intriguing, because its sense of the world we live in is very strong and vividly conveyed.