In a literary landscape in which cultural and political “timeliness” too often trumps artistry, it is a relief to discover there are still novels being written that confront the great questions of the day with nuance, skill and artistry. Rather than seeming, from first page to last, mainly to shout that they are about Brexit or American dictators-in-the-making, police brutality or the international refugee crisis, predatory men or, as we will all soon see, Covid-19, their interest lies in multilayered illumination of the lives affected and sometimes upended by the subject at hand.
At once the finely drawn story of a marriage on the skids and a nuanced appraisal of the variegated impacts of climate change, When the Lights Go Out, the third novel by Carys Bray, is one of these. It opens with a memorable encounter. A woman out Christmas shopping in town sees a man railing about climate disaster. It is pouring down. Indeed it has been raining almost unremittingly for weeks.
The man “looks like a prophet, arm extended in an attitude of exhortation”. A sandwich board covered in climate-disaster slogans stands beside him. If the man were a stranger, the sight might be a mere curiosity. But he’s the woman’s husband.
Emma and Chris Abram have come to such a tricky point in their relationship that one doesn’t even know what the other – ostensibly out drumming up the odd jobs that climate-inflected economic times have reduced him to – is getting up to.
Rotating perspective from chapter to chapter, over the days leading up to December 25th, Bray goes deep into their tattered relationship and the withering effect it has on both of them.
Emma – who has steady work and, though she is far from oblivious to the changing climate, has grown comfortable with a relatively quiet level of activism – is mostly eager to prepare the house for a family holiday gathering. Her mind is on baking potatoes, tarts and biscuits, not on hunkering down for the coming apocalypse.
Chris, meanwhile, thoroughly convinced that end times are near, has been hoarding giant containers of honey and other essentials, studying the best way to efficiently harvest the rabbits he has purchased for their meat, and frequenting “online forums where foreigners without health insurance write favourable reviews of unregulated antibiotics”.
Bray puts it rather mildly when she writes, from Emma’s perspective: “The climate of her marriage is changing, and she has been in denial about it a long time.” Indeed this is a marriage with mould on its walls and the spores are fast spreading.
The mould in When the Lights Go Out is both metaphorical and quite literal. For almost every page of the novel is informed by the unnatural rain, which just won’t stop falling. Puddles slither “in search of company”; “oily buses, full to the gills, [crawl] through the wet, and shoals of pedestrians [dive] in and out of shops”.
Bray skillfully orchestrates and contextualises the way the family drama, by turns humorous, banal and horrible, plays out in this soggy context. Chris is convinced that if he doesn’t toughen up his woefully soft family they are headed for serious trouble. The couple’s two sons get absurd lectures in rabbit killing technique and how to cope when the power is off – which happens with great frequency. Tension crackles and fizzes. Everyone in the Abram house can feel it.
James, the younger son, has started aggressively calling his mother by her first name and sees alternate versions of himself hanging in the misty air, while Chris’s recently widowed, highly religious (she thinks to do yoga is to dabble in “you know what”) mother comes to stay because of a leak and quietly refuses, with devastating consequence, to follow house rules. Emma, forced to admit that “her life is full of unbeautiful truths,” starts to smoulder.
They all, in their different, sometimes violent ways, act out. The family gathering comes off but not, to say the least, in the manner anyone of the participants expected.
If When the Lights Go Out culminates in grim fireworks, Bray offers her characters and readers some measure of hope. It is Emma’s vision of modest but meaningful action that triumphs, if not against the rages of a warming planet – which the novel, even as it lays out Chris’s excesses, never looks to downplay – then against despair. And while Bray wisely resists the cheap balm of tidy reconciliation, she does show us the fundaments of a way forward.
“And they lived,” this clear-eyed, wry, wise novel ends. “Not always happily. But they lived.”
Laird Hunt’s latest work is In the House in the Dark of the Woods