By Danuta Kean, The Guardian
When a local councillor knocked on the door of Amanda Craig’s Devon bolthole, the novelist learned something that helped her realise, 10 years later, that the vote for Brexit would be a certainty and not a vain hope among Little Englanders.
“He came round begging for us to give work to someone he knew,” she recalled. When asked why he was so desperate, the councillor replied: “People don’t realise, but in this part of the country we are poorer than Romania.”
The writer, who is now based in north London, was astounded: “A lot of things have shocked me since about rural life, but that shocked me the most.”
The experience inspired Craig to write her forthcoming novel, The Lie of the Land. A satirical take on the disparity between town and country, which highlights the emotional levers that led to the Brexit vote, The Lie of the Land is focused on a metropolitan couple forced to downsize to Devon because they cannot afford to divorce.
The book moves between privileged middle classes and migrant workers on zero-hours contracts in a pie factory. Set to be published on the one-year anniversary of the EU referendum in June, Craig’s book is in a vanguard of 2017 novels set to tackle the state of the nation in the run-up to and after Brexit.
June will also see Douglas Board’s political thriller Time of Lies. Set against the 2020 general election, a monstrous rightwing demagogue with a hardcore following of violent young thugs stages an anti-elite coup to win. Likened to Jonathan Franzen and Dave Eggers, Board tackles the response of liberals and the establishment to a populist power grab.
Publishers predict that this trickle of fictional responses to Brexit will turn into a flood by the end of 2017. “I suspect we will see a lot more Brexit or Trump-America books once we have all lived through whatever changes these may bring [this year],” said Kirsty Dunseath, fiction publisher at Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
Though not written specifically about Brexit, Heinz Helle’s novel Euphoria, published by Serpent’s Tale in February, takes as its starting point a post-apocalyptic future in which Europe has crumbled and a handful of men are trying to survive in the Austrian Alps. Helle’s publisher described it as “Lord of the Flies meets The Road”, grappling as it does the anxieties of post-millennial European men.
Crime writers have been fast to pick the referendum as a background for their next works. June sees the publication of Mark Billingham’s next Tom Thorne novel Love Like Blood, which uses the post-Brexit vote rise in hate crime as its theme. Billingham said: “It’s not the issue at the very heart of the book, but it’s bubbling under throughout the story.”
Fellow crime writer Martyn Waites is working on novel The Old Religion – due in 2018 – that has the aftermath of the vote in a small Cornish community as its setting. Waites said crime writers were usually first to tackle social change because, among readers, crime fiction had replaced the social novel once produced by the likes of Alan Sillitoe or Stan Barstow.
“As a crime writer you’re dealing with life and death – usually murder, because tax fraud is boring – so you’re looking into the society that created the circumstances for that to happen,” he said.
Craig it was important for her that The Lie of the Land tackled the assumption that all leave voters were “stupid, racist and jingoistic … They are not. I don’t agree with how they voted, but I respect them and I think it is really important.”
She thinks it is imperative for contemporary novelists to tackle the disparities in society that led to June’s result. “Since my previous book A Vicious Circle, I have been writing more and more about the gulf between the haves and have-nots, which anyone with half a brain should be worried about now,” she said.
That two of the books published this year about post-Brexit Britain will be dystopian fantasies did not surprise Jasper Sutcliffe, head of buying at Foyles. He said: “We expect to see lots of new-world politics titles in 2017 to help people try to understand the new political reality, as well as more utopian fiction for those who wish to escape from it.”
Not all contemporary novelists are rushing to tackle Brexit. Lionel Shriver said her next novel will be set in the US because “the UK-EU situation is in flux, and the outcome is likely to remain unclear for some time”.
“Because a novel takes most of us a couple of years [to write] and another year to arrive in print, it’s dangerous for novelists to point a plot at a moving target. We can easily get overtaken by events,” she said.
“To successfully address Brexit in a fruitful and lasting manner would require a novelist to parse: what is this conflict really about? Deep down? I think that’s anything but obvious.”