Book review: The Quiet at the End of the World by Lauren James

(cover image courtesy Walkers Books Australia)

For all the many and varied ways that humanity could slash its collective throat, the trip to the apocalypse almost always looks eerily the same.

Some great cataclysmic event occurs, people die en masse (or rise up again), civilisation totters and falls, and the survivability of Homo Sapiens takes an almighty beating.

Same old, same old; the stories may be well written but the end result is reasonably predictable (save for some notable exceptions like The Girl With All the Gifts by M. R Carey, The Book of M by Peng Shepherd and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel) and formulaic, which when you think about it, is rather ironic given how ruinously messy and cataclysmic the end of all things would be.

In Lauren James’s exquisitely-ruminative novel The Quiet at the End of the World”, the apocalypse arrives as always but it comes upon us slowly, almost glacially, when a virus that causes massive nosebleeds results in a worldwide epidemic of infertility.

Apart from the embryos stored in clinics around the world, humanity is without a way to continue the species, staring, however many decades into the future, into the abyss of oblivion.

“If I thought that life wasn’t worth living, it was because I hadn’t found the way I could change things yet.

But I know now what I have to do. I can’t sit here, quiet at the end of the world. I have to fill the world with noise. I have to shout and fight and give everything I have to make sure this isn’t the end.” (P. 318)

It takes some time for everyone to fully grasp that this is happening.

There’s some short term fear and dislocation sure, and the inevitable riots that come with any social change, but eventually people get back to going to work, paying bills and going on holidays and the eventual doomsday is consigned to the backs of peoples’ minds, their hope resting in the ability of scientists to defuse the infertility bomb ticking silently among them.

We know all this because Lowrie and Shen are the young woman and man respectively left on earth, schooled in all of humanity’s art, science, culture and a thousand other things that together make up this thing we called civilisation, and acutely aware, after some digging through what remains of the internet – neglected not so much because people have reverted to the Stone Age but simply because there just aren’t enough people anymore to keep everything ticking along – of what led to their very special place in the world.

Initially you aren’t aware of how great a weight rests upon them; their days seems relatively carefree, full of mudlarking adventures through the detritus of London, where the ever-diminishing footprint of humanity is returning the world to an idyll it has not known for thousands of years.

Lauren James (image courtesy official Lauren James Twitter account)

Peel away all the treasure-hunting and lighthearted conversations, and the affectionate banter between children and parents, and close connections with an ageing community who dote on the two last teenagers in their midst – or anyone’s midst for that matter; Lowrie and Shen are it and the final countdown to humanity’s irreversible end is in train – and you find two young people, Lowrie especially, who are acutely aware of what is expected of them and what they must to keep civilisation ticking along, at least for 70 to 80 years, or however long they live.

It’s a huge burden, one that begins to increasingly weigh on Lowrie who fears not only failing to keep the flame of sentient life alight, but is afraid of what happens when their parents, who are into their 80s, die and she and her best friend are left alone in a great big, empty world.

Suddenly the title sounds less poetic and meditative and more ominous, a crushing loss of noisy vitality from which there is no return.

Understanding that this aloneness will likely happen sooner rather than later, Lowrie and Shen talk often about what they will do when they are all that’s left of humanity and what they should do to leave a lasting, informative memorial to a species that has turned out to be but a blip on time’s grand time scale.

“Maybe this is just the first time that humanity has been in communication with the whole planet, so it’s bee noticed and recorded. Maybe one day Shen and I will find out that we can have a baby – even the thought of how we’d accidentally discover that makes my stomach squirm – and then that’ll be that: people will start having babies again. Like the sterility never happened at all.

This time it would actually be remembered, though. With the internet, it will never be forgotten,” (P. 155)

It’s a lot of weight to place on the shoulders of two older teenagers but it’s all Lowrie and Shen have ever known and they do their best to be both ready for the inevitable and to not allow their overpowering destiny get the better of them.

Which is not easy, of course; but for all the existential burden they must carry, and they are, as you might expect, wise beyond their years, James brings them to life so vividly and so authentically, that everything about their utterly unique lives feels wholly understandable and relatable.

That’s quite a feat of writing since none of us have gone through anything like a slow-burning infertility apocalypse and hopefully never will.

What makes The Quiet at the End of the World is this inherent relatability; we may never go through anything like this but so vividly-realised are Lowrie and Shen that every single thing they feel and think makes perfect sense, feels innately, truly human.

In other words, the apocalypse is less whiz bang disaster porn and more intrinsically, relatably human, the kind of event that we can grapple with and understand, and more importantly, connect with in a very real and deep way.

That makes reading this wholly wonderful book, which balances action and suspense and a very real threat with some understandable existential and romantic angst, such a unique experience – this is the apocalypse as it will likely happen, all slow burn and unremarkable events, with humanity disappearing little by little, bit by bit, with only a few entirely-engaging souls like Lowrie and Shen (you can’t help but feel like them intimately and well) left to mark the passing of a species that one bestrode the globe.

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