Those of us who live in Coventry have had reason to look to Hull in the last year. Since we were named UK City of Culture for 2021, we’ve naturally been casting an eye northward, to the UK City of Culture for 2017. We’ve marvelled at the explosion in its arts and crafts, the carnivalesque exuberance of its celebrations, installations, theatrical and dance performances, and the general expression of an irrepressible and determinedly working-class culture that mirrors our own.
Funnily enough, all this energy is on display in Sour Fruit, Eli Allison’s vibrantly realised post-apocalyptic genre-busting debut, published this week by Unbound. It isn’t set in 2017—or, at least, not the one we lived through. It may be set in the near future, or it may exist in an alternative now. Some technology is beyond us (an extraordinary regenerative drug, drones with advanced AI), but the pop culture references (Doctor Who!) are instantly recognisable, at least to the reader.
Death stalks these streets in ways that are familiar (malnutrition, disease, exposure, gang violence), but also in ways that might be just around the corner (drones that spray the streets with bullets after curfew). And yet the sense of danger exists side-by-side with one of carnival, and it’s not only a case of panem et circenses. The ‘peacocking’ (body painting with glow-in-the-dark pigments) and attendance at a riotous street dance allow the trafficked orphan Onion and her minder Rhea to experience a few minutes of vivid joy before they are plunged again into peril.
There are two Hulls in this novel: the official city, home to registered citizens who can expect to enjoy all the protection and freedoms provided and permitted by the state; and Kingston, the place beyond the wall, where the unregistered VOIDS struggle for survival in a half-drowned, mostly toxic, dog-eat-dog environment. Onion, our protagonist and guide—speaking directly to a shadowy interrogator, and possibly not telling us the whole story—is stolen from the first and sold into the latter.
Other reviews have noted something Dickensian about this tale, and they are right to do so. It’s not just that the novel features an urchin heroine, it’s also that Allison has something of the great Victorian’s gift for deftly presenting an enormous interconnected society in all its light and shade. I can’t remember a moment in Sour Fruit when I didn’t see my locale and the sharply drawn characters surrounding me with absolute clarity, except where darkness was the terrifying point.
Allison intends Sour Fruit to be the first in a trilogy, and certainly you finish the novel wanting more. We’ve only seen a partial view of Kingston’s sprawl, even if it has taken us from murky flood waters to a toppling rooftop garden. We need to know more about this place, and we want to see more of the ever-combative Onion and Rhea, and the host of supporting characters, which include a mysterious sea hag, a helpful Viking, and ferocious antagonists such as the Shard (think Miss Trunchbull, but bigger, and she will actually kill you).
So, I can’t wait for the next one. But I am worried now about what my own city can expect after 2021…
Sour Fruit by Eli Allison, published by Unbound 2018. Available now from Amazon. Eli is a stablemate of mine at Unbound, who I have yet to meet. Thanks to her and to Unbound for passing me a review copy.
About Eli Allison
Eli Allison tells people at parties that she's a writer, but she mostly spends the day in her knickers swearing at the laptop. She ping-ponged between one depressing job until finally she said, ‘This year I’m writing that book.’ Years later the book is done...There is a sneaking suspicion she would have kept quiet had she known quite how long it would have taken her. She lives in Yorkshire, works in her head and does not enjoy long walks on the beach or anywhere, in fact she gets upset at having to walk to the fridge for cheese.