A dystopian vision of social “rearrangement.”
This time out, the stylish British author (The Book of Revelation, 2000, etc.) depicts a future England “reorganized” to reverse the nation’s descent into “envy, misery, and greed,” a catastrophe that has made a formerly functional society “northern, inward-looking, barbaric.” Matthew Mickelwright, Thomson’s narrator, is forcibly removed from his home when he’s eight years old, later relocated and renamed (“Thomas Parry”), as part of a government redistribution of its populace into one of four “Zones” or “Quarters” distinguished according to the ancient theory of the human body’s ruling “humours”: choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic and sanguine. Designated sanguine, Thomas is raised among children of similar temperament, reassigned to the family of a railroad engineer (whose wife was sent to a different Zone) and his teenaged daughter. Upon graduating from university, Thomas finds employment with “an organization whose job it was both to guide and to protect society,” becomes a civil servant entrusted with “transferring” people from Zone to Zone—and, attending “conferences” that take him to all four Quarters, becomes painfully aware of public resistance to The Rearrangement and flaws in his government’s exercise of societal control. Like Gulliver adrift in contrasting alien lands, Thomas encounters radicalized victims of “the new [psychological] racism,” survives shipwreck and introduction to the idealistic “Church of Heaven on Earth,” crosses borders illegally, is detained and “re-evaluated,” lives briefly with the reviled White People (in whom no “humour” predominates), meets a “shape-shifting” girl employed as a “spirit guide” easing people toward death, and ends up energized by a hopeful vision of his own future—which the reader sees receding at the close. Thomson makes it work intermittently, but has stretched his material too thin, pushing clarity outside the reader’s field of vision.
A flawed effort, from a writer capable of much better work.