My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Length: 384 pages
Release date: 26 July 2018
Mhairi Anne Bain owns only two things: a gun with no bullets and her identity papers.
The world is a shell of what it once was. Now, you must prove yourself worthy of existence at every turn, at every border checkpoint. And if you are going to survive, your instincts will become your most valuable weapon.
Mhairi has learnt the importance of living her own story, of speaking to no one. But then she meets a young boy with no voice at all, and finds herself risking everything to take him to safety.
And so Mhairi and the silent boy travel the road north. But there are rumours that things in Scotland have changed since she has been away. What Mhairi finds there is shocking and heart-breaking, but might finally re-connect her to her sense of self and to the possibility of love.
“Remember, Papa said, whatever happens, the world is beautiful.”
Take a terrifying dystopia where climate change has finally caught up with us.
Masses of people fleeing from famine, drought and war near the equator have given a new meaning to the European migrant crisis. Children have never received more special protection–in that, unlike those over the new age of majority of 15, they get nutritious food and a psychologist when they’re detained at borders. Prisons have been abolished–because crime is punishable by forcing the criminal to undergo lethal injection earlier than the universally mandated death age of 74. It’s in this world that Nicky Singer introduces Mhairi Anne Bain, a 14-year-old who by the second chapter confesses to us that she is twice a murderer.
Writing at a time when the migrant crisis has reached a watershed, Singer illustrates just how many times worse it could get with the climate change reckoning. Certain sequences are dead ringers for the chaos of Europe’s migrant camps, from the Calais jungle to the Budapest Keleti station of which we all remember photos. The main difference is that The Survival Game transplants these scenes from continental European cities to the Scottish countryside. The end result is a little heavy-handed, and the message of look at what could happen could not be clearer, but the emotional notes ring true.
Through this nightmare that takes place less than a generation from now, The Survival Game tells an intimate, touching story of simple human kindness in the face of unspeakable cruelty. A mere vision of our darkest future wouldn’t be anywhere near as compelling as the journey of one hardened girl and one selectively mute boy bound first by circumstance, then by love. It’s a tragedy in and of itself that they’re fourteen and six respectively, and have witnessed more horrors than most adults living in developed nations today.
Mhairi is an indefatigable protagonist, resourceful to the point of travelling ten thousand kilometres through a dying world alone. She’s nothing as simple as likeable; she’s someone I want to give a big hug and keep safe forever. Same goes for the boy, eventually named Mo, who’s far too pure for the insane world he grows up in. And for all of the other characters who help Mhairi and Mo along with the tiniest spoonful of compassion, since in this future, offering a blanket is a kindness beyond comprehension. This book understands and fosters empathy so well.
Minor caveat, the surreal writing style and extremely short, snapshot-like chapters (there are 110 in a 384-page novel) take some time to get used to. I promise that it’s worth it. I couldn’t stand the vague allusions and incomplete information at the start, but it grew on me big time. Eventually, the evasive narration makes for a powerful tool to demonstrate the trauma Mhairi suffered. The story is rather hazy and slow-paced at the start but it really does get much better.
Nicky Singer’s prose is highly quotable and filled with insight. Normally, this amount of introspection in a dystopian novel would bother me, but it works in The Survival Game for a couple reasons: First, the book is pretty short and Mhairi’s reflections are given time broken up with action. Second, Singer has a unique writing style that gives her narration a conversational tone without a hint of pretentiousness. That genuine voice helps her get away with a lot of YA tropes that would be annoying in another writer’s hands. After all, migrant/borders twist aside, The Survival Game reads a lot like many other near future post-apocalyptic dystopias. It’s Nicky Singer’s knack for empathetic storytelling, first and foremost, that makes this one memorable.
One last thing I appreciate about The Survival Game is that, just as contemporary migrants’ stories don’t end when they reach the shores of Lesbos or Lampedusa, the story doesn’t stop when Mhairi and Mo get to material safety. On one end, they carry a lifetime’s worth of emotional scars; on the other end, the locals of their new home carry nativist fear that needs no introduction. The Survival Game handles both issues with tact and realism. I especially admire the ending, which gives a fitting tug at the heartstrings. It’s beautiful in its own way.
I recommend this book to anyone with a love of gritty YA or grounded dystopias. You won’t be disappointed. I love the story Singer has created, but for the sake of just about everyone, I hope it isn’t prescient.
*Thanks to Hachette Children’s Group and NetGalley for providing a review copy of this book! All opinions represented remain my own.*