Anne Charnock is fast carving out a niche for herself as a writer using speculative fiction to explore the social and economic impacts on society of technological and demographic change. Her Arthur C Clarke Award-winning novel Dreams Before the Start of Time used its mosaic-novel structure to tell a story about the impact of developments in reproductive technology on successive generations of a single family. Family dynamics were the canvas on which those changes played out.
In Bridge 108, Charnock turns to the geopolitics of climate change. Her focus is on migration, particularly economic migration. In a world blighted by sea-level rises, desertification, drought, and forest fires people will travel for a better life for their families or their own sakes. The novel expands on her novella The Enclave, and is set in the same late twenty-first-century United Kingdom as her debut novel A Calculated Life. This is a UK where the societal ills of violence and addiction have been near eradicated through the development of drug therapies administered in childhood. Those who are either unable or unwilling to be treated are marginalised, and virtually unemployable. They live away from the rest of society, in gated enclaves that were established to keep people who have not been treated separate from the rest of the population, eking out a near-subsistence existence, doing minimum-wage work and hustling on the side.
Bridge 108 is the story of Caleb, a boy from southern Spain who left his hometown with his mother to travel to the UK to escape the impacts of climate change. Their town was dying with water shortages and unemployment rife. People were slowly but steadily choosing to leave in search of something better. The UK offers the prospect of employment and an escape from ever-increasing shortages. Separated from his mother on the journey, Caleb is trafficked into the UK and becomes part of a gang of boys upcycling clothing for the widow Ma Lexie in one of the enclaves outside Manchester. Living on the rooftop of her apartment block, they work in exchange for bed and board. Ma Lexie is fond of Caleb and promotes him to the role of overseer, which gives him some additional freedoms. Caleb gets to work with her in the weekly markets and select textiles from the recycling plant owned by Ma Lexie’s brother-in-law, Jasper. But Ma Lexie doesn’t realise that Caleb has a growing friendship with Odette, a young woman who lives on one of the neighbouring rooftops. Odette persuades Caleb to run away with her, with the intention they should become seasonal workers in one of the UK’s vineyards.
It is not necessary to have read A Calculated Life before Bridge 108, but the latter works as a counterpart and counterpoint to it, showing the darker side of Charnock’s society. It is stratified and hierarchical, but the gentrified, middle-class society explored in A Calculated Life relies on the enclaves and the underclass that is forced to live there, creating an interdependent ecosystem. They may be out of sight, but the enclaves are where the messy, unpleasant, but essential work of waste reclamation takes place, and where the minimum-wage laborers that food production relies on live. And everything depends on migrant labor, whether those working out their terms of indenture in exchange for the right to remain in the UK, or those working illegally. Without that migrant labor the economy would collapse and there would be shortages of food, power, and raw materials.
Whether intentionally or not, those structural inequalities discriminate against the poorest and most vulnerable, including migrants like Caleb. They are stigmatised, and treated as a resource, the supply of which can be managed through the flexing of immigration rules. Those immigration rules are confusing, arbitrary, and inconsistently applied. Caleb’s chances of staying in the UK are increased if he is an unaccompanied child. If he is reunited with his mother, he is at risk of being deported back to Spain. The whole has an uncomfortable racial dimension. This is a society that is deliberately and cynically exploiting those who are not British, and one that will never welcome them as full members because it is unlikely any migrant will qualify for the treatments necessary to access higher paid and more prestigious work. It is a society that requires conformity and assimilation, punishing indentured laborers who dare to speak a language other than English and requiring them to set aside their own cultures in favour of an approved version of Britishness. There is ultimately little difference between Caleb’s experience of working illegally and the official immigration centres. Labor is exploited, food is poor, punishments are arbitrary, and the promise of future reward induces his compliance. This is a fragile existence and people have little in the way of freedom of choice or action.
Charnock asks us who are the exploiters and who are the exploited? Caleb is presented to us as someone at the bottom of the heap, successively groomed and exploited by people offering him something better. Ma Lexie buys his loyalty with kindness and the promise of the privileges that come with being her overseer, and with the prospect of developing his own creative ideas for her clothing business. But her business depends on child labor to make the clothes she sells for profit. The children are effectively prisoners: locked on the rooftop, unpaid and unable to leave. Odette cultivates a friendship with Caleb, but does so cynically. She is only seeking a companion for her escape to help her to avoid discovery and capture. Jerome, the undercover immigration officer, facilitates Caleb’s escape during an immigration raid on the vineyard where he is working, but he uses the rapport he has built with Caleb to persuade him to turn himself in and offer evidence against the people who trafficked him into the country. The exploiters are exploited in turn. Ma Lexie may be part of an extended family business, but she is a junior member of that business, who operates at the sufferance of her brother-in-law Jasper. It is a precarious life. She is perpetually anxious that her team of laborers will be taken away from her for other work at the waste reclamation facility. Odette is desperate and running away from mistreatment by her employers on the roof garden in the Enclave.
We could see the characters in this novel as faceless and passive victims, or as cynical villains exploiting others in the kind of comforting, simplistic narrative familiar to us from contemporary media channels. But Charnock’s first-person storytelling encourages us to view them as complex individuals with agency of their own. The multiple narrators enable us to experience the precarity and desperation of Charnock’s characters at first hand, even if they do not always convince as wholly believable separate individuals. At times they are too consistently British middle class in their sensibilities. Some of this may be a consequence of Charnock’s distinctive spare prose style. She writes with a journalist’s economy, every word working hard. She requires the reader to actively engage with the text without the signposting other writers would use. But that does not create much opportunity to fully round out the interior lives and motivations of each character, or to differentiate their individual voices. When their preoccupations—such as Jerome’s relationship with his ex-girlfriend or his sexualisation of the women he meets—are introduced, they can be jarring in contrast to what is otherwise an extremely tightly written novel.
Circumstances force people to make decisions based on their own self-interest, and focused on the short rather than the long term. Desperation forces individualism, even at the expense of friends and family. Compassion for others and any sense of community are lost as people are alienated from one another. Ma Lexie is trying to build as much independence for herself as she can, protecting her workforce and her business. We feel her anxiety at the insecurity of her position in the Enclave, her dependence on her late husband’s family, and see how this manifests in cruel treatment. Caleb and his family make an active choice to leave their home in Spain and come to the UK in the hope that it will be a better option for them than remaining in a region slowly becoming ever more affected by climate change. The titular Bridge 108 is where Caleb makes another of those choices. He can continue on the run from the authorities, working illegally, running the risk that he will be caught and deported, or he can turn himself in and trust that the immigration system will grant him the right to remain if he complies with the rules. Even Caleb ultimately betrays those he is closest to for the sake of his own future. Charnock leaves us to decide if this choice is cynical or one that is borne from having few alternatives.
The least sympathetic of Charnock’s characters is Skylark. She has run away from what sounds like a fairly stable home life and is working as a people trafficker, supplying Ma Lexie and other individuals in need of migrant labor. Her grooming of Caleb shows the cynicism with which she operates: identifying children she thinks she can sell on. She builds rapport with them, with a practised set of tactics such as talking about missed pets and shared interests, before bringing them into the UK. There have always been people willing to profit from the desperation of others, and treating people as a commodity is not something new. But there is something chilling about someone willing to treat a person as a tradable good, and to put their life and safety at risk for the sake of profit. The novel does not tell the story of how Caleb crosses the Channel into the UK. It is something he finds too traumatic to recall. But the recent deaths of thirty-nine people who suffocated in a refrigerated lorry in Purfleet in Essex on their way into the UK shows the careless disregard for safety of people traffickers in pursuit of a profit.
Bridge 108 is a chillingly plausible extension of the current trend of people travelling to the UK in pursuit of a better life. Many pay to be trafficked, or find themselves in debt bondage, forced to work in nail bars, hand car washes, or illegal cannabis farms as slave labor. Some start their journeys willingly, but become victims on the way. The poorest and most desperate take the greatest risks. The countries of western Europe—and the UK in particular—are seen as desirable destinations that offer opportunities. These countries are already multicultural societies, meaning people are likely to find people like them. They have a good record for justice and human rights in comparison to the instability and corruption migrants may be fleeing from. Thanks to the UK’s colonial past, English is widely spoken worldwide.
Charnock herself has talked about the immigration centres in her novel being loosely inspired by the treatment of Uighur Muslims in China. Other historical parallels also come to mind. You can easily view Caleb as a contemporary Oliver Twist working his way through a Victorian workhouse system that is as much about exploiting his labor and instilling the “right” kind of morals and values as it is about providing food and shelter to a vulnerable orphan with no other options. Charnock applies the Victorian principle of less eligibility on which the workhouse system was based; that is, of conditions having to be worse inside the workhouse to deter claimants. Although providing food and shelter, the strict discipline, hard physical labour, and limited freedoms within the immigration centres of her novel are intended to act as a deterrent to all but the most desperate seeking to come to the UK. Rather than picking oakum or building Famine Walls in exchange for food and shelter, the residents are laboring in the messy, dangerous jobs that UK society depends on, principally in the agricultural sector.
Either way, we should not be viewing Charnock’s dystopian future as something remote. The effects of climate change, war, and instability are already prompting many African people to leave their homelands to escape drought and famine, following trade routes that have existed for millennia. Sea level rises are threatening the Maldives. Bushfires are causing devastation in Australia. The most direct effects of climate change we are seeing in the UK right now may be floods and other freak weather conditions, but as part of an interconnected global system the UK cannot escape the consequences of changes elsewhere. While a UK warm enough for there to be vineyards as far north as Manchester may seem superficially attractive, it comes at a huge cost.