This is a dystopian novel with a difference – and with an important message. Around forty or fifty years from now the Western economies have collapsed, replaced by a resurgent Asia led by Japan. There, migrants are employed on low wages to undertake the jobs that native Japanese don’t want. A right-wing political movement uses the media to foment resentment about such migrants, as well as those without jobs who are housed in squalid camps adjacent to the ports. Those with jobs are provided with sub-standard accommodation.
When a Japanese monopoly auto-manufacturer closes its three plants in the former UK, now reduced to the Federal Republic of England and Wales, or FREW, one employee from each is offered a position in a Japanese plant. One such is Jordan May. He sets out for Japan accompanied by his wife, Shaylie, and their son, Alfie. As the family attempt to settle into their new life, they become embroiled in a peaceful protest movement dedicated to improving the lot of immigrants.
By inverting the present situation in Europe, where migrants are often resented and exploited, Urwin is able to show what it feels like to be the object of such discrimination and abuse. The plot, and counterplot, as a mysterious former diplomat fills the role of puppet-master to the boss of the corporation, in opposition to the corrupt right-wing politician, has several threads which come together as a huge demonstration takes place on the streets of Tokyo.
The tension is gradually ramped up as the various protagonists go about their daily business and the thugs employed by the right-wing politician engage in clandestine bullying of the migrant family. Jordan’s conflicting emotions, as he balances the possibility of jeopardising his family’s future well-being against his desire to help those migrants who are worse off than him because of their lack of appropriate skills, are convincingly portrayed. So, too, is the evolution of the relationship between fifteen year old Alfie and the older Japanese girl assigned to mentor him as the only gaijin (foreigner) in the Japanese high school.
I can readily imagine that some readers will sneer at the inclusion of one or two too many coincidences. Yet it is hard to see how else the author could have shown different aspects of the personalities of some of the principle players. The business man’s life as a family man and the politician’s private perversions are given greater weight by their impact on members of the May family.
Unwin has lived in Japan and presents a convincing portrait of Japanese culture and the geography of Tokyo. The family’s English home, in the author’s native Essex, is equally well drawn, with descriptions of the future devastation expected to be caused to that county’s coast by rising sea levels. Where I take issue with a central aspect of the story is in the depiction of the puppet-master’s background. Institutionalised child sexual abuse, racist abuse, and bullying are all topical subjects. To be credible as influences in the development of a particular personality they need to be properly contextualised. Here we are offered, instead, clichéd depictions of a British public school and of the UK diplomatic service.
Review prepared for Rosie Amber’s review website where it is due to appear on February 6th.