Fiction Reviews

Two Tribes

(2020) Chris Beckett, Corvus, £16.99, hrdbk, 279pp, ISBN 978-1-786-49932-5


As a historian in the bleak, climate-ravaged twenty-third century, it's Zoe's job to record and archive the past, not to recreate it. But when she comes across the diaries of Harry and Michelle, who lived two hundred years ago, she becomes fascinated by the minutiae of their lives and decides to write a novel about them, filling in the gaps with her own imaginings.

Harry and Michelle meet just after the Brexit referendum when Harry's car breaks down outside a small town in Norfolk. Despite their different backgrounds, and Michelle having voted Leave while Harry voted Remain, they are drawn to each other and begin a relationship.

From her far-future perspective, the way Zoe sees their world is somewhat different from the way we see it now. Two Tribes becomes a reflection on the way our ideas are shaped by class and social circumstances, and how they change without us even noticing. It explores what divides us and what brings us together. And it asks where we may be headed next?

Ah, Brexit, a topic which dominated all the headlines until CoVID-19 came along. It has already spawned a variety of novels from Ali Smith’s quartet of books, to several satirical novels, most notably from the likes of Jonathan Coe and Ian McEwan, as well as Amanda Craig’s The Lie of the Land with a married couple too skint in the Brexit aftermath to even afford to get divorced. As you would expect from someone as good as Chris Beckett, Two Tribes is something totally different from all of the above, although I couldn’t help but be reminded of that literary detective novel, Possession by A. S. Byatt, which won the Booker Prize, as two people in the present try and unpick the past. But here we have someone in the future – centuries ahead – unpicking our present and turning it into a sort of fiction to try and understand what happened to people in the past and what is happening to her.

I’ve always thought that Beckett when he isn’t out there on other planets has always applied his social work outlook and asked “what if?” to things that are going on in society. That was noticeably in his novel Marcher and America City and many of his short stories. Obviously this was written before the outbreak of CoVID-19 when Brexit still dominated the headlines with stories of no-deal, rising food prices, industries being hung out to dry and the possible break-up of the United Kingdom. This is a book about class, and differences and tribalism, even clumsy, toe-curling romance feature. You aren’t going to learn anything new about Brexit and the divisions it caused, but you are going to see some possible effects of the process through the lens of Zoe. She is looking at the past from 2266 in her role as an archivist for the Cultural Institute where her job is to reconstruct the past. How she does that is by writing a novel based on the 2016 diary of an architect called Harry Roberts whose son has died from meningitis, resulting in the end of his marriage, but there are two other woman in his life, two very different woman in the form of Letty who works in the arts in London and working-class Michelle from Norfolk who represent the two tribes of the title with very different ideas of Brexit.

While, all of that might sound familiar with the arguments and opinions and prejudices of the main characters, what isn’t familiar is the world that Zoe inhabits, a ruined world after the climate disaster of 'The Catastrophe' where there is no EU (maybe a good thing, some readers might say), but there are also no cars or running water, and food is scarce and the streets are flooded with punts needed to move around. That’s Zoe’s present, but we learn that the divisions of Brexit led to civil war and Chinese rule.

Told over 33 chapters, Two Tribes is another gentle, thought-provoking novel from one of the best writers around.

Ian Hunter


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