July 22, 2015

The Casualties - Nick Holdstock

Thomas Dunne Books, 2015

Five Stars

Right from the start, we know this isn’t just any small Scottish village – something strange has happened in Comely Bank, and it’s not just the population of odd characters. Beginning in the prologue, we are told that this is a novel set in the past – in 2016 – and that things are much different now. It was disconcerting to think of next year as the distant past, with almost Dickensian descriptions filled with wonder at the foibles of our ancient society. There is heavy foreshadowing, but the apocalyptic events that took place will not be clear until the end of the novel, and there will be plenty of unexpected incidents leading up to it.


Meanwhile, this could be described as a pre-apocalyptic novel in which we are given a snapshot of the eccentrics of Comely Bank (a suburb of Edinburgh) as their lives intersect before the end of  the world as they know it. The narrator seems to be omniscient, but then occasionally begins to speak in the first person – very disconcerting. At the same time he appears to be archiving the lives of the people around him. His friends and neighbours cover many sins, such as greed, vanity, lust and gluttony. In each chapter, they are seen from a new perspective, giving us a well-rounded view and a reminder that no one is all good or all bad. The narrator spares no one with his exacting descriptions of misdeeds and mistakes.


The writing has a fable-like quality – I wouldn’t have been surprised had the novel started with “once upon a time.” The tone of the narrator is distant and ethereal, as he discusses people in regards to their fairy tale qualities. He hovers over events like a ghost, becoming increasingly present in their lives until he finally merges with the “casualties” of his past. All of the residents of Comely Bank are damaged – whether from their own choices or from actions inflicted upon them.


It is not until almost one third through the novel that we are told what actually caused the apocalypse, and even then, it is a throw-away comment. It is not important how the world changed, but what is important is the realization that the world could not continue as it was (or is). The narrator makes some intriguing diversions into philosophy, citing small human problems that are in fact symptomatic of world problems such as climate change and war. (Loc. 1823-1843) He emphasizes that the end of the world will come due to our “lack of will to change.” Like a fetus spontaneously aborted because it is taking too many resources from its mother, our planet has its ways of removing us also.

This was a great, unexpected novel that can be read on so many different levels. Thought-provoking and enjoyable, however you read it.

I received this book for free from Thomas Dunne Books and Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

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