Two Tribes by Chris Beckett (book review).

There’s something comforting about starting a Chris Beckett novel. Not that the subject matter is necessarily comforting but, as soon as I delve into the first page, I feel in safe hands. I feel that the novel knows where it’s going, knows its own pace and is capable of whisking me there in perfect safety while I remain oblivious to the world outside. Chris Beckett creates such realistic and compelling settings that his stories flow effortlessly and draw you into their worlds.

In ‘Two Tribes’, we follow the lives of middle-class architect and Remainer Harry and of hairdresser, self-proclaimed chav and Leaver, Michelle. They lead quite different lives in different social circles, eventually coming together through chance. Brexit forms the background to much of Harry’s life and his discussions with his friends and we are gradually led through the endless arguing and disagreeing about what’s best for the country, gaining insight into the viewpoints of the two ‘tribes’ who are defined by their politics and social standing. This sound like it could be a really boring treatise on the subject of Brexit but is actually a fascinating glimpse of how two disparate parts of society fail completely to see things the same way.

Meanwhile Charlie, perhaps named as an homage to the character from ‘Flowers For Algernon’, whom he superficially resembles, is portrayed more briefly. He is a firm believer in Leaving, with his own down-to-earth reasons and he starts to get drawn into an embryonic organisation of like-minded people who are willing to fight for what they believe in against the untrustworthy higher echelons of society whom they suspect will renege on the Brexit referendum.

So far this doesn’t really sound like speculative fiction, but the whole narrative is collated by an historian named Zoe from 250 years in the future who is putting together a picture of what life was like in Britain at the time. Based on Harry’s meticulously detailed diaries and extrapolating from other sources, she is working on a semi-factual novel to bring Harry’s story to life. I often read stories framed as diaries and wonder what the point was when the story could have been written as a story. Chris Beckett has done his usual job of making this much more interesting though. Some parts of the novel, Chris Beckett’s novel that is, are quotes from Harry’s diary. Others are Zoe’s thoughts on Harry’s diary entries and historical asides to explain the culture of the day. Other sections are from Zoe’s novel where she has used artistic licence to bring situations to life. Then there are conversations with her friend, Cally, who critiques the novel, and scenes from Zoe’s life as she considers the consequences of the ‘Warring Factions’ period that followed on from the Brexit tensions. The Britain she lives in is a shattered ruin, destroyed by civil war and environmental degradation, saved from chaos by a Chinese intervention.

There are things left out from the novel, details of how exactly Harry’s world morphed into Zoe’s and what ultimately happens to all of the characters. This makes it more realistically historical as nobody can know all the details of what happened to everyone.

This is a uniquely fashioned novel, gentle in exposition, detailed in introspection, visionary in its consequences and yet thoroughly avoiding any moralising or preaching. Proof for those who doubted that a novel about Brexit could also be a novel of speculative fiction.

Gareth D Jones

August 2020

(pub: Corvus/Atlantic Books, 2020. 288 page hardback. Price: £16.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-78649-932-5)

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