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Kirstin Innes: Dystopian fiction could easily be our own not-too-distant-at-all future

Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, pictured in 2019 (Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire)
Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, pictured in 2019 (Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire)

Last week, I hosted the launch of Falkirk-born Scottish Egyptian author Rachelle Atalla’s debut novel, The Pharmacist.

It’s speculative fiction, set in one of those particularly unsettling dystopias that only feels as though it’s a few years off our own, in the not-too-distant-at-all future.

In the world of The Pharmacist, which Atalla recreates in terrifyingly claustrophobic detail, something has happened- the reader presumes nuclear war, but is never fully informed – and the remnants of society, at least of one city, have been confined to an underground bunker for what feels like decades, but is revealed in fact to have been less than a year.

We meet the inhabitants of Atalla’s subterranean world through the eyes of Wolfe, the titular pharmacist, who has made it into the bunker by virtue of her specialisation, although she’s had to leave loved ones to die above ground to be there.

As Wolfe is our only point of entry here, the world we see is coloured by what she wants to disclose to us; the things that she can’t bring herself to face, through denial and mental fatigue, are only sketched out for us.

An imagined political situation disturbingly close to reality

I first read The Pharmacist about six months ago – one of the perks of being an author (actually, just about the only one, if I’m being totally honest) is that publishers send you advance copies of all the most exciting new books – and the world Atalla has depicted has stayed with me since.

I think it’s partly because she is so good at the everyday detail: the mundane, tiny things, beautifully written, that make the world she’s created so believable, and partly because the political situation she’s depicted is, disturbingly plausibly, only a few jumps from our own.

The inhabitants of the bunker are mostly members of the richer echelons of above-ground society. They’re the ones who bought their places in, who jumped ship and abandoned the rest of the city; they now live in bunk beds, are rationed to two pouches of fruit puree a day, wear boiler suits.

The one thing they do have access to is a vast library of prescription drugs; almost everyone is medicated to help the days pass, hence the particularly pressing need for a pharmacist.

What hit home for me was the personality cult ND maintains, even as a recluse, bombarding the bunker-dwellers with his broadcasts and his voice

They have been led there by a charismatic, populist prime minister, known as ND, presumably through his own war-mongering actions. He was known, above ground, for his golden tan and his distinctive mop of hair, for his outspoken nature and for his beautiful, much younger wife.

By the time Wolfe finds herself in his orbit, though, he has lost the tan and most of the hair, become reclusive, erratic and paranoid, lashing out vengefully and murderously at even his closest advisors. He is sequestered within luxury in a secret part of the bunker, where he has access to real food and a personal chef, a DVD library and little touches, like silk wallpaper.

Stranger than fiction

When I interviewed Atalla at her book launch, she revealed that, although she first wrote the book in 2018 and 2019 and ND was inspired by Donald Trump, by his narcissistic grip on the world’s attention, her edits and rewrites were completed during lockdown, under Boris Johnson, and both men informed her creation of the character.

Donald Trump takes the oath of office to become the 45th US president on January 20 2017 (Photo: Everett/Shutterstock)

What hit home for me was the personality cult ND maintains, even as a recluse, bombarding the bunker-dwellers with his broadcasts and his voice; never, ever allowing them respite from him. I remember feeling this way during the Trump presidency, where he would dominate news cycles, generating two or three stories a day.

It’s the trick that Johnson manages now, maintaining an onslaught of scandal and outrage, exhausting us with the constant fact of himself so that we don’t know how or what to protest first.

Sowing seeds of a revolution of hope

What Wolfe’s eventual insider position gives us, though, is a realistic look at the toll this sort of personality cult must take on the person inside it.

We can already see that Johnson is erratic and lashing out, scorching the earth behind him in a way that leaves behind only enemies – to the vengeful tweets and blogs of Dominic Cummings, we can now add the BBC Panorama testimonies of those Downing Street staffers who were hung out to dry as part of Operation Save Big Dog, commenting on the Covid party culture that the prime minister himself led.

Boris Johnson has faced increased criticism since the partygate scandal was revealed (Photo: James Veysey/Shutterstock)

The comfort I take from The Pharmacist is that Atalla, despite the brutality of her dystopia and some of the actions of the people within it, never loses sight of the other essential of humanity; kindness. Wolfe finds tiny glimmers of friendship and interpersonal connection here and there and, without wishing to spoil anything, that’s where the seeds of a revolution of hope are sown.

People will always need to reach out to each other, no matter how dehumanising the policies of those in charge; I’m holding tight to that one in the wake of yet another partygate scandal.

  • The Pharmacist by Rachelle Atalla is out now, published by Hodder and Stoughton

Kirstin Innes is the author of the novels Scabby Queen and Fishnet, and co-author of the recent non-fiction book Brickwork: A Biography of the Arches

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