review by Joe Vaz

Published by Harvill Secker
PB 199 pages
RRP R112 (Kindle $11.99

“They catch up in two seconds and start bombarding us with apples. Grandpa stays steady through the pounding. We roll up the windows to protect ourselves. Sad, because we haven’t seen apples in a year and now they’re drumming all over us. Unthinkable, that people could keep apples from other people. Grandma leans in close to Grandpa as he squeezes through the traffic, trying to get away.”

From Issue 14 (Oct 2011)

I’ll get to the point. This is a great book. Buy it now.

Still not convinced? Okay, here’s why.

I was asked to chair a conversation on post-apocalyptic fiction for this year’s Open Book Festival in Cape Town, so I sat down with Steven Amsterdam’s book and started reading.

I had never seen anything by this author before but Things We Didn’t See Coming sucked me in immediately and completely.

It begins rather innocuously for a post-apocalypse novel, with a young boy of around nine helping his dad pack food and survival gear hurriedly into the car. It is New Years Eve, 1999, and at midnight the Y2K bug might wipe us all out.

I’d never read a PA book that started in the past, and was immediately intrigued.

By the time I finished chapter two I was in tears and in love with Amsterdam’s writing.

This is an exquisitely crafted, beautiful and endearing novel. It is difficult to talk about all the things I loved about it without giving too much away .

The book is narrated across nine disconnected but chronological episodes. Each chapter sees our narrator at different points in his life; sometimes they’re good, but most often they’re not. In the second chapter we meet the boy again, now a wise-ass teenager. The city he lives in is barricaded, but this doesn’t stop his grandparents from dragging him out on a jaunt that manages to be funny, poignant and heartbreaking all at once. By the next time we see him, things have taken a turn for the worse; incessant rain has caused massive flooding. The protagonist is out rescuing people and bringing them back to shelters, though he’s by no means a hero. And so we are drawn into a world coming apart at the seams, following a man making what he can of a threadbare existence.

Amsterdam’s strength lies in the effortless way he brings us up to date with how the world is doing now, how much time has passed between chapters, and where we are. With just a few words here and there, he paints a complete picture.  Through highs and lows, Amsterdam takes his narrator (and his reader) on a journey across this ravaged country with startling skill.

The narrator’s sardonic wit keeps us company throughout, making this the anti-Road. I found it uplifting and unexpectedly funny, poignant and beautiful. It is scary and thought provoking and it has its moments of darkness, but it’s never bleak.

Things We Didn’t See Coming is a fantastic debut novel from an author whose future work I can’t wait to get my hands on.

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