Two Tribes (2020): Chris Beckett

★★★

It was only a matter of time, wasn’t it? Behold: a speculative Brexit novel! Despite being weary of the whole Brexit conversation, I was curious to see how this particular author might project its results into the future. Chris Beckett is a smart and perceptive sci-fi writer, and I’ve read several of his other books, although, so far, I’ve only posted on Dark Eden. He’s interested in human society, the way it develops, and the way that small events can knock history onto different paths: in short, an ideal person to tackle the far-reaching potential effects of Brexit. The two tribes of his title refer, on a superficial level, to the Leave and Remain Brexit factions; but they also reflect the British world of two centuries later. Here we meet Zoe, a London-based historian who is researching the foundations of her society, using a cache of 2016 diaries alongside the rich digital records of the period. I’d come to the book assuming that we’d be spending much of our time with Zoe in the future, so I’ve got to admit I was a little disappointed to discover that it’s predominantly set in 2016: a Romeo-and-Juliet story framed by the Brexit divide.

Zoe decides to approach her historical project in an unusual way. To her delight, she has found two diaries in her collection which overlap, offering alternative perspectives on a single story. Intrigued, she begins to weave a historical narrative around these two people – something which troubles her friend Cally, who fears that the all-powerful Guiding Body might not approve. But Zoe feels that this story is worth telling, not because it records cataclysmic events or famous people, but for precisely the opposite reason: it offers a tantalising glimpse of everyday life in the period just before everything changed.

Her protagonist is Harry Roberts, the author of an extensive diary. A London architect, recently separated from his wife, he moves in wealthy professional circles. His friends ‘earned their living by knowing things, and… were dependent on people listening to them‘; they are, one and all, horrified by the Brexit result, unable to comprehend why the majority of their countrymen have been unable to see something that is self-evident to them. Harry is driving back from a weekend in Norfolk when his car breaks down outside the town of Breckham. Unable to get it repaired until the following day, he manages to find a room for the night online: a room in a private house, owned by a young woman called Michelle. They get chatting over a bottle or two of wine and, as the evening wears on, both are shocked by their sudden pangs of desire. For Harry, long starved of love, this feels like the beginning of something magical. Can Michelle start a new chapter in his increasingly lonely life? But then, as they say goodbye the next morning, she makes a comment that brutally smashes his dreams and reminds him that they come from very different worlds.

Michelle lives in a modest regional town, the kind of place where people spend their entire lives, in close proximity to their families. She co-owns a hairdressing salon and has a tight-knit circle of friends and relatives in easy reach. And yes, she voted Leave in the Brexit referendum, because she’s seen how her brother, who works in construction, has found it increasingly difficult in recent years, thanks to increased competition from European migrants. She has a sense of decisions being made far away, by people who have no idea who she is or what she needs. She feels powerless, like many in her community. And, by happy coincidence, she also writes a diary which comes into Zoe’s hands some two centuries later. Zoe follows the uneasy courtship of Harry and Michelle, who are attracted to each other, but both acutely conscious of their differences. Are these differences only of their own making? Or are they following the unwritten rules of their wider communities? How can they square their beliefs with one another and, even if they decide to make a go of it, how will they gel with each other’s ‘tribes’?

Beckett is particularly interested in how humans coexist. His books Dark Eden and Daughter of Eden focus on the development of a civilisation in the far future, from basic social groupings, through tribalism, into the foundation of more complex societies. And here he develops a sharp, unsettling vision of how our own society might be transformed, if we allow our divisions to fester (I just wish we’d been able to explore more of that future!). Although the book is full of arguments for and against Brexit, and Brexit occupies Beckett’s characters in 2016, I’m pretty sure that he isn’t really bothered about Brexit in itself. He’s more interested in what it represents and what it did to us: how it very swiftly created divisions that laid bare deeper truths about British society – truths that we still don’t like to confront, about class, and opportunity, and privilege – all of which strengthened the battle lines.

Harry had become very conscious lately of how much of conversation, any conversation, was not about exchanging ideas or information but about collectively rehearsing a position and obtaining little strokes of mutual validation… very much like the grooming behaviour of chimpanzees. We humans reinforce the bonds that link us together, not by eating each other’s ticks and fleas, but by harmonizing our views and providing each other with agreeable little endorphin hits of fellow feeling.

That’s spot on. I recognised many of the arguments being made by Harry’s circle – I made some of them myself at the time, believing them to be original and sincere, whereas in fact all I was doing was repeating the words I’d heard from others in my network. To be honest, I thought we spent a bit too long going through each side’s arguments here, but Beckett is absolutely right about the siloed, self-reinforcing nature of modern society. I’m sure it has become more rigid in recent years, and I think it’s the root cause of his future dystopia. There are warnings here too: be careful; beware of good intentions. Moreover, Beckett urges us to take a step back and realise that, while we’re squabbling over our ‘tribes’, much more damaging developments are taking place under our noses.

Harry, Michelle and their contemporaries don’t have the excuse of blissful ignorance: they know about the climate crisis, and feel flashes of guilty awareness, but carry on anyway. This is ‘a Ponzi-scheme society that was only possible because it was able to defer its inevitable collapse to a point some way off in the future‘. And it’s Zoe and her peers who have inherited that collapse: a hot, muggy world, in which scorched fields yield limited crops and the streets of London have sunk under rising waters. Environmentally ruined, and politically insignificant, Britain has until recently been a Chinese protectorate, and is now overseen by the Guiding Body, who hide themselves in gated communities while ordinary people languish in the slums. It is a bitter existence, and certainly not the kind of future anyone wanted to bring about. So how did we get to this point?

Essentially, while I enjoyed Beckett’s striking and disturbing vision of the future, I just felt that too much of the book was devoted to scenes in which people argue about Brexit, which didn’t feel especially original or exciting. And his interest about societal change seemed, here and there, to override his interest in characters as people: beyond Harry, Michelle, and a couple of others, many of the characters were exaggerated ‘types’ from both side of the Brexit divide. A curious book, not completely satisfying as a novel, but peppered with ideas and arguments that nevertheless continue to ‘niggle’ after you turn the last page. A strange balance.

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review

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