There just isn’t anyone else writing like Anne Charnock. Her exquisitely-crafted short novels are like super-distilled iced vodka, clear, compulsive and with a kick that comes later. You also don’t need much to get off your head.
In this one, part of a series of four novellas by different authors published by NewCon Press, we revisit the subtly strange but familiar world of the author’s first novel, ‘A Calculated Life’. In an altered, futuristic Manchester, specially bred geniuses and upgraded humans run things, while on the outskirts the enclaves supply labour and foodstuffs. The enclaves exist via an odd combination of hand-me-down Heath Robinson tech and a barter economic/social structure that just about works despite bordering on the medieval.
New boy Caleb, a 12-year-old immigrant fleeing complete social breakdown in Spain, has trekked across Europe with his mother. We don’t meet the mother; she vanished either due to a nervous breakdown or because she was trafficked – probably both. Caleb speaks excellent English, but has no papers. He has also not been injected with the regular state-administered inoculations, which have eradicated crime at the cost of defiance and, by implication, free will.
He is taken in by Ma Lexie, an attractive young woman who runs a business creating fashion items from recycled clothes. The inventive Caleb is quickly promoted and eventually taken off the building roof where he lives and works to visit the market. But can Lexie trust him?
A lesser writer would have written the whole novella from Caleb’s point of view, as he is more obviously sympathetic; however, the middle third of the story is narrated by Lexie. We learn that she is a middle-class widow who fell in love with a man from the enclave, whose family run the local recycling operation. Caleb isn’t the first boy Lexie has taken in; others have been absorbed into the family business, much to Lexie’s despair. She wants to trust Caleb, but as her husband’s bullying relatives begin to assert their influence, the strain builds and Lexie slaps Caleb. She immediately regrets it, but the damage is done. By now, we desperately want the clever, spirited Caleb and the mournful, caring Lexie to stay together; however, when we switch back to Caleb’s narration there are surprises in store…
Subtle characterisation draws the reader in completely, with Caleb in particular a great creation. His reasoning is that of a damaged but capable boy, equal parts vulnerable and ruthless. He reflects the odd world around him, which is a very English sort of quasi-dystopia. There is compassion and cooperation, but the twin threats of gang violence and unwelcome state intervention are never far.
Anne Charnock has perfected the sudden, startling ending, leaving the reader raw and slightly confused in a satisfying, particularly science-fictional way. This short book, perhaps even more than the lovely ‘Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind’, left me wanting more; a novel perhaps, although that is probably missing the point of a story that is primarily about barely comprehensible personal loss. Ultimately, ‘The Enclave’ is excellent, very adult writing from an author who knows how to deliver what we want without us realising it.