It was about affection, never having the opportunity to create an environment where we could experience it; never having the means to obtain it. (p. 99)
This sentence is at the core of The Storm, within the story “Soulmate.” At only four paragraphs, that story might be overlooked, but it centres the emotions which are so repressed in other stories—directly stating that conflict and natural disaster have created a world without affection; the primary natural disaster being a storm which continues for decades.
This book builds a picture of people being unable to influence what happens to them or how they respond to it. The combination of an underexamined inner life and intense, widespread unpleasant events forms the bedrock of the volume. There is a lingering sense that most people don’t quite know how much the storm has changed them and can’t know how much it has affected others.
Although the copyright dates stretch back to 2015, reading The Storm in 2021 is to read through the lens of the pandemic. The repression of all emotion to get through an extreme situation that I see in this volume is at large in our world today. And yet, the long-term disaster of a changed climate, of a storm that has never stopped, ensures that there also a endless, relentless pressure. The characters are living through a chronic rather than an acute trauma.
The Storm delivers a broad survey of dismay, in the form of a story suite; a series of pieces which mostly appear sequential, over the course of some years from the beginning of the storm. The final story has a specific callback to the first—though not the one I expected—but there is no direct overlap of characters. Despite providing some quite specific dates, there is a vagueness of sense of when, in our twenty-first century, the stories are set. Knowing the author is based in Sheffield and came from Brixton pushes a sense that this is a version of Britain and the place names derive from an English/Anglo-Saxon ancestry but they are not points on our map. The personal names are more varied, with origins that spread across the globe. Very little else is provided as individual signifiers, contributing to a sense that anyone could be overtaken by such events.
The first story, “The Storm,” is effective in introducing both the titular event and the sense of damped-down emotion which fills the book. For the first ten days, the weather reports treat it like weather—but as the weatherman on the TV becomes more ragged, this starts to look like a change in the climate. Casualties are soon into the thousands, though we are left to imagine how these deaths occurred.
As is likely in our own lives, what the protagonists of this story know about these events mostly comes from the television. They are caught up in the rivalries and affections of office life, which are complicated by the constraints of the weather. The strangeness of the circumstances is intensified when the boss suggests that sleeping in the office is safer than going home. This builds a sense of shared experience which clashes with the boundary-breaking of camping in the office. All this is coloured by a sense of dread which Seun, the viewpoint character, feels as he worries about what has happened to his father. He eventually decides he can no longer wait for the storm to pass and embarks on the dangerous drive to find out. This is presented as not a hero’s tale—Seun is driven by events, acting from the fear of not knowing, not through hope.
The trauma of the storm shapes each character in this book, undermining human resilience so that the mistakes and misfortune of an ordinary life are all the harder to handle. This is most apparent in “A Stroke of Madness (Hil Park),” where Amri is still deeply affected by the disappearance of his older sister, now twenty years in the past. There is an implicit lack of closure, with Amri still holding within him the aftereffects of the storm’s beginning. The reader is left to imagine how this shaped his marriage, now ended in divorce, whilst in the story’s present the construction of fancy new flats brings it all to the surface. Amri’s story is told in quite a low-key way, his going off the rails slipped in between the day-to-day of being a single parent, holding down a job. Within that frame, his attempt at sabotage seems both out of character yet fully explained by his own life. The resolution has more to do with his relationship with his daughter and ex-wife than with his arrest and incarceration. If he can recover his personal connections, there may be hope.
“Benjamin’s Mansion” is more uncomfortable because it lacks even the tidiness of story logic. There is a huge party at the mansion. At least some of those invited are aware of a treasure hunt for “something special.” The main characters seem to wander at random—as one might, in a huge party venue filled with strangers—but there is a sense that the partygoers are seeking release rather than hedonism. Along the way, some characters get into a fight and another contemplates jumping off the roof of the mansion. Even though the “something special” is found, this is a waypoint rather than the climax of the narrative and the story ends without resolution. The writing demonstrates suppressed emotion—calm and tidy, almost completely avoiding the why of these people’s lives. What can we truly know of those we meet?
“Marc Populaire” is bare in a different way. It is a series of answerphone messages, from banal messages about a boiler to a variety of increasingly emotional voice mails from Marc’s family and friends. What is happening to Marc? The final message provides only a partial answer. This story is well into the book, but the phone messages are from the end of 1999, long before the storm itself. The pattern-seeking mind wonders why it is here, particularly given that another story says music from the 2030s is old. The absolute lack of a hint adds to the disconcerting nature of the overall text. Perhaps this is a particular problem for my kind of genre reader, who seeks hints which will enable the world to be untangled. There is a certain comfort in finding coherence in a book. If that is what you seek, this book does not offer it. Instead, it suggests the impossibility of finding an explanation either within or beyond the pages.
There are fantastic elements other than the storm, fascinating ideas which are used primarily for what they can say about our psychology. “Eden” is set in a place which people visit in the reasonable hope of seeing their deceased loved ones again. How this works is not the point of the story; instead, it considers what we would do with another last chance. Closure? Not if you keep coming back—and surely not if you reject the opportunity for Bereavement Counseling. “Bhuddatarium,” meanwhile, is a business that provides the “one thing in this world that can give us the calm we need, and at the same time improve our spiritual fitness” (p. 170). This is a meditator—a person who has achieved total purification yet someone you can buy and install in your home. Their aura brings grace and calm into your house and your life. This is not just “mother’s little helper,” as a meditator in your home calms visitors as well as residents but, as one character says:
they’re the thing that makes everyone in their homes happy, rather than hard work … I mean, a bald dude sitting on a cushion who says and does nothing fixes all your problems? Maddening, don’t you think? (p. 183)
Perhaps this artificial calm is better than the anxiety and self-doubt exhibited by so many of the other characters in this book. But, for me, the calm available in this story is more aligned with numbness, an indifference to either suffering or joy which is the opposite of presence.
Altogether, The Storm creates an effective mosaic of a deeply uncomfortable future across its thirteen pieces; a future where people continue to go through the motions without the appearance of hope. It is an effectively written portrait of despair without resolution.