396pp, hardback, £14.99
Reviewed by Alison Burns
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No, this is not a new garden city, advertising its charms. Pines is a gated community somewhere in North America, after most of society has collapsed. In this, her debut novel, acclaimed US author Edan Lepucki, graduate of the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop and acclaimed for her short stories, gives her take on the near future.
Central characters Cal and Frida have fled from Los Angeles and live in the wild. Earthquakes and freak weather have left a trail of destruction: cities have shut down, there is no Internet, no law and order. Somehow, the privileged few have pre-empted disaster and shut themselves up in safety.
Calvin (known as Cal, short for ‘California’, his nickname) is an idealist. Safety, for him, is the two of them going it alone, in a grim shed in the back of nowhere. Two years in, they grow their own food and eke out domestic supplies brought with them or bartered from August, a mysterious itinerant trader. Life is hard, and lonely. Conditions improve when newly-discovered neighbours take poison and die, leaving a more comfortable home to move into.
Frida thinks she is pregnant. She longs for safety, and friends. In time, she and Cal agree to go looking for a local community they’ve heard about. This place is not one of the privileged ones. It is a ghost town, occupied by revolutionaries and run on commune principles. Nonetheless, it too has guards and keep-out signs, of a kind. Cal and Frida are captured and taken to its leader, Micah. Way back, Micah belonged to something called the Group, originally formed for protection against violent, selfish elements.
As Frida settles in, and becomes celebrated for her baking, Cal is let into some of the community’s secrets. But much is unexplained. Why are there no children here? Where do supplies come from? Who are the Pirates? Why must Frida keep quiet about her pregnancy? How trustworthy is Micah? Will they be allowed to stay?
The denouement is chilling. Nonetheless, this whole story feels like a fairytale compared with what is likely to happen.