Here’s an admission before we get into the review of this book: I actively avoid “climate lit”, the suddenly-everywhere genre of fiction dealing with global climate apocalypse. It’s hard to cope with in this actual plague year. Call me shallow. I don’t care.
So finding out that When the Lights Go Out, the British writer Carys Bray’s third novel, “examines climate anxiety”, fills me with a resigned gloom. And the story begins in actual gloom: in a northern English town where there is sempiternal rain.
One Saturday, Emma Abram sees her eco-warrior husband Chris standing “like a prophet” next to the town war memorial, preaching with his painted sandwich board. “RECORD RAINFALL EVERY WINTER FOR YEARS TO COME! . . . CLIMATE CHANGE THREATENS FUTURE OF GOLF!”
Emma’s tart response to Chris’s sign mirrors that of any middle-aged, bookish woman. “Too much information, Emma decides. And the exclamation marks are misjudged.” And with that, Bray has me hooked, because this is not just a climate anxiety book — it is a novel about family, the nature of faith and belief, the hold of the past on the present, and how we can at least try to navigate a better future.
When the Lights Go Out does of course contain an existential threat, in the form of the altered climate that brings an increasing risk of flooding to Emma and Chris’s remote house. As Chris’s behaviour becomes increasingly extreme, he becomes a “prepper”, forcing his family to get ready for the day when civilisation breaks down.
There’s a lot of religion in this book — Chris, we learn, had a childhood “dominated by his parents’ epic spiritual journey, his father in the driver’s seat”. His subsequent devotion to saving the planet can be seen as a reaction to the religion he has rejected, but it is far more subtly done than that, and his still-devout mother becomes a key character. She’s the sort of elderly woman who claims she doesn’t want to be any trouble while positioning herself as a passive-aggressive torpedo poised to blow up the family dynamic.
Bray herself was brought up in a community that believed the Second Coming was imminent: she knows whereof she writes when it comes to extreme religion and apocalypse prepping. Chris’s stockpiling includes buying fish antibiotics off the internet and getting a pair of rabbits to breed for meat.
This book has too many vignettes of ecological disaster for my tastes, but Bray is a fine writer, and she is brilliant in her explorations of the delicate ecosystem of a long marriage: “There was a time in their marriage when talking, like sex, was recreational, a chance to rub their ideas up against each other and experience some relief in the sharing. Now, she [Emma] can’t fathom how to talk without making things worse.”
From Chris’s point of view, he has had to start caring because Emma has given up. Her causes used to be “the environment, peace, the preservation of public services”. Her old demo placards lie discarded in the garage, and as the story unfolds we see how much of herself Emma lost when the public library closed, and with it her work and her identity.
Bray, who lives in Southport, the seaside town where When the Lights Go Out is set, demonstrates through her characters’ lives the effect of neglect by central government. And expresses righteous anger, too.
Finally, as things in the family come to their inevitable crisis point, Emma starts to express herself. She’s done with being manipulated by her husband. The Abrams’ future, it seems is uncertain, but not apocalyptic. As Emma says: “Is love a choice? Perhaps it becomes one, over time.”
When the Lights Go Out, by Carys Bray, Hutchinson, RRP£14.99, 336 pages
Isabel Berwick is the FT’s work & careers editor