The world as we know it is unravelling and so is Adam Leith’s partner, Ellie, and in turn their relationship. Adam and Ellie are sad people with unremittingly sad lives: their daughter Summer has life-threatening asthma, Adam is a scientist modelling the coming apocalypse and Ellie is a depressed artist.
For the rest of James Bradley’s Clade we follow different characters, including these, and Ellie’s stepmother, Maddie, in a series of time-jumping vignettes reminiscent of Steven Amsterdam’s similarly themed Things We Didn’t See Coming. As Bradley’s characters negotiate their joyless lives in the pre- and apocalyptic age, more personal and global tragedy strikes. The first half of Clade is bleak. Maddie loses a child in agonising circumstances. Summer grows to be a lost young woman, who “…feels ill at the thought of what she has become, her revulsion so overwhelming she can barely keep it in”.
Even as his characters battle floods, ecological collapse, displacement and a pandemic, and find and lose people, we are on a well-worn road travelling in one predictable direction. By halfway through, Ellie is “confronted by the impossibility of it all” and “vertiginous with agitation and despair”, and so am I.
So far, so everyday dystopia. Bradley is too accomplished, though, to construct a one-dimensional narrative and gradually some space and variation appear. Clade opens up to become that rarest of novels: one that stares down its harrowing beginning to find a sense of peace and even of wonder, while being true to itself. All the way through, the prose is achingly beautiful. Bradley’s a magnificent writer and it’s all on display here: sentences and images float, poetic and sharp as crystal.
He tells us, of East England, that “the reality is that this place is already lost, that some time soon the sea will have it back, the planet will overwhelm it”. It’s not just East England that is lost. As great as the coming global tragedy is, greater is our inability to truly love each other in this tenuous present. Bradley’s characters never rejoice or appreciate; they can only mourn and regret and rage when it’s too late. Our brains are increasingly poor tools in this business of adaptation, and of loving. Clade has no contorted happy ending, except to show our vast inadequacies and to enable us to find pity for ourselves and for each other. LS
Hamish Hamilton, 256pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 31, 2015 as "James Bradley, Clade ". Subscribe here.