Book Review - Whether Violent or Natural

Natasha Calder’s dystopian debut, The Offset (2021), co-authored with Emma Szewczak, explored overpopulation and controlled procreation. Her first solo novelWhether Violent or Natural, offers a terrifying vision of “the end of days” involving superbugs and antibiotic resistance.

Kit and Crevan appear to be the sole inhabitants of a remote island. They live in a bunker beneath a castle ruin and only venture out at night. Kit tells us she is 28, Crevan is older. There is something slippery about the pair and we are unsure of their relationship or who to trust. Crevan is protective, soothing Kit’s panic attacks and teaching her self-combat. We learn he has been hunted by “backbiters”, former doctors, who check people for illness, cull those considered a threat or “patch” them against infection, while Kit is not as helpless as she first appears. When a half-dead woman washes up on the shore, Crevan’s instinct is to save her but Kit is reluctant, fearing infection.

Kit relates how a bacteria had emerged on the mainland that could “devour plastic by the tonne”, offering a solution to the proliferation of plastics destroying the planet. But new strains evolved and began to consume everything. Then they developed “a taste for the human…”.

Some may take issue with Kit’s narrative voice – a combination of precocity and naivety – and the opaque chapter titles. She is a flawed but compelling character, her repetitive, dense language deliberately evasive.

The main pleasure is to be found in Calder’s inventiveness; how she plays with our expectations and drops clues as to Kit’s past – including four empty bunk beds and a dog-eared copy of The Swiss Family Robinson. The twists come thick and fast and Calder keeps us guessing until the final pages.

Originally pubished by The Observer