n Jim Crace’s post-apocalyptic vision of the future, America has become an ‘old world’ country – a once mighty nation, its cities reduced to rubble and its people returned to a pre-industrial way of life, or driven into economic migration. Where their pioneering ancestors crossed the Atlantic in pursuit of the American Dream, the descendants are flocking back to the coast, desperate to escape an American nightmare. It is a lawless land of sickness and starvation, roamed by gangs of bandits. Lured by the promise of safe passage to a new and better world, the refugees stream eastwards by whatever means they can towards ships rumoured to be awaiting them. It isn’t made clear how far into the future this dystopian world is located, nor are we told the exact nature of the catastrophe which has laid waste to America as we know it today. There are clues, though. Clearly, enough generations have passed for America’s days as an economic, technological and military superpower to be the stuff of folklore, borne out by the archaeological litter of past glory. It seems, too, that the population can be counted in thousands, not millions. Crace is no Ballard when it comes to evoking post-apocalyptic landscapes, but his is a plausible and disturbing enough alternate world.
Into it, he places his two protagonists: Franklin Lopez and Red Margaret, so named for her apricot-coloured hair. As the novel opens, Margaret has been quarantined in a hut above the village, Ferrytown, where she lives; she has early symptoms of the flux-like contagion that killed her father and must