“‘There’s no one left, or hardly anyone. No one’s coming. At some point we’re going to have to go out and get more food and other stuff, or one of us is. Surely it’s better if the person who does that has the best chance of not catching it?’” It’s a line that could feature in the HBO series The Last of Us, one of many zeitgeist touches to be found in Claire Fuller’s new novel The Memory of Animals. The English author’s fifth novel is a taut and atmospheric read, an exploration of captivity, sacrifice and survival in a post-apocalyptic world.
Simply and effectively structured in the time period before and after Day Zero, a pandemic of gargantuan devastation, the narrative asks important, resonant questions of life in extremis. How do we divide resources, how do we decide who is worthy of help, what do we do when society breaks down, when there’s no one left to monitor right and wrong? And underpinning all these questions, the most pressing one: in a world where everyone is struggling to stay alive, who gets to survive?
Fuller is an artist from Oxfordshire who started writing when she was 40. She has four previous novels: Unsettled Ground, which in 2021 won the Costa Novel Award and was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction; Our Endless Numbered Days, which won the Desmond Elliott Prize; Swimming Lessons, which was shortlisted for the RSL Encore Award; and Bitter Orange. Her latest book sees her return to familiar themes – marginalised outsiders, the legacy of trauma, the fallibility of memory, among others – but in a scenario that is at once more overtly dystopian and yet strangely grounded in the real world. There are shades of Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam, the futurist short stories in Margaret Atwood’s recent collection Old Babes in the Wood, or the accomplished opening story of Rebecca Miller’s Total.
In The Memory of Animals, Fuller holds up a dark mirror to the pandemic, bringing a haunting credibility to her fictional Dropsy virus, which causes swelling in internal organs, progressing to memory loss and death as the strain mutates and strengthens. The book’s protagonist, Neffy, a marine biologist in her late 20s, finds herself marooned in a hospital on the outskirts of London with four others, the remaining survivors of a vaccine trial that had hoped to protect against the virus.
As much of the narrative takes place within the confines of the hospital – with depressingly realistic details such as Neffy’s inability to taste and smell, or “the internal mixture of lethargy, irritability and sudden zeal” brought on by captivity – Fuller chooses to bolster this with a science fiction storyline about a “Revisit” machine that allows Neffy to travel back in time in her memories, chiefly to childhood holidays in Greece with her father Baba.
While original in premise, this device soon begins to irk: why couldn’t the character just remember the past like most other fictional characters, which is to say, in her own head. Explanations about the machine’s purpose and process take up valuable space that could have been spent in-scene, where Fuller’s admirable descriptive powers are to the fore: “Marmari beach was a narrow oyster-coloured scoop, the olive trees so close to the water that in the late afternoon their shadows dipped their heads into the sea.” Other minor gripes include mournful letters to an octopus that don’t really ring true, and a certain typecasting to Neffy’s fellow hospital inmates – bossy organiser-in-chief Piper; practical Leon; mercenary Yahiko; beautiful, helpless Rachel – who are nonetheless engaging characters, their various predicaments past and present coming to life on the page.
Fuller writes brilliantly about desire and the heady beginnings of new relationships. Neffy recalls intimate moments with her boyfriend Justin: “Like starting a fire that spreads outwards until it gets to my hands and the soles of my feet and sets them alight.” Past memories (or revisits) such as these work to humanise the loss the characters feel. The book is also peppered with knowledge, another trademark of Fuller’s writing. Who knew that an octopus has the same level of intelligence as a three-year-old human, or half a billion neurons located throughout its body?
Plotwise there is double intrigue: the direness of the situation beyond the hospital walls, and an earlier mystery, involving Neffy and her father, that is revealed subtly and sensitively as the story unfolds. The superb ending ties everything together with a moving, tragic cohesiveness. The bleak twists and sudden shifts forward in time feel earned and in keeping with the world Fuller has created. As her caged animals make a bid for freedom, the reader will applaud their attempts to keep going against the likelihood of their endless numbered days.