Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 13, 2018

Dyschronia, by Jennifer Mills #BookReview

The first thing to say about Jennifer Mills’ fantastic new novel is that you should not be put off by its title.  You don’t need to know what it means, you don’t need to worry about pronouncing it properly because even if you do get it right, the librarian or the shop assistant will probably look puzzled anyway.  Best to write it down on a piece of paper!

(And no, it’s not the name of that blue creature on the front cover.  That’s a type of cephalopod, better known to us as a cuttlefish, the internal shell of which people who keep birds in cages use for the birds to nibble on).

It’s a most disquieting novel.  The people of a coastal town wake up one day to find that the sea has gone from their coastline.  The sands are covered with putrescent creatures and rubbish and everyone goes indoors to avoid the revolting smell.  The scene of devastation is too big to contemplate a community clean-up, but these people don’t work together as a community anyway.  The first person plural narrator who tells us this is world-weary and fatalistic: speaking on behalf of the town this voice conveys a sense of hopelessness and of people no longer in control of their destiny.  The only time these people are ever proactive is when a young girl called Sam foresees a great flood and they all take out flood insurance so that they can cash in on it.

Sam’s real name is Samandra, a name with echoes of the Greek oracle Cassandra, who was doomed to have her prophecies disbelieved.  Sam’s narrative is told from her point-of-view but not in her voice.  Her perspective is limited because she’s only seven when the novel begins, and she doesn’t understand the visions that come to her when she has dreadful, disabling migraines.  She sees the future only in fragments and when she tries to explain what she’s seen of course her mother doesn’t believe her.  She takes Sam on a round of medical appointments to deal with the migraine, and she either dismisses everything Sam tries to convey or she comes up with a rational explanation for it.

Until, that is, Sam foresees  six men fall to their death from a tower in the asphalt works.  Aspco Asphalt is the major employer in the town, but it is closing down because it is no longer competitive in a globalised economy.  When six men do indeed die, then Ivy believes Sam, and so does Ivy’s boyfriend Ed, who’s working as a consultant for the company, supposedly assisting the community to adjust with new projects that will bring jobs to the town.

But the company is bought up by global interests one after the other, and the entity which was integral to the town economy disappears into an impenetrable fog of letters in meaningless legalese, the upshot of which is that instead of being creditors of the defunct company the workers become shareholders, receiving pitiful dividends instead of proper redundancy payouts and ultimately liable for its debts.  That’s right, not everything about this novel is speculative fiction, not even the bit at the bottom of the letters always promising a ‘better future’…

Ed and his son ‘Ned’ straddle this remote and heartless non-entity because they have relationships with people in the town – but Sam never trusts either of them.  The reader has no illusions either.  At a town meeting of the sort we’ve all seen on TV, Curdie asks for some assurances because there’s been no progress on the job/tourism creation project:

Ed smiled.  ‘You know what I love about this town?  You’re able to see past your own limitations.  You’ve got to stop thinking about yourselves as workers.  You’re a company now, your own bosses.  That takes some getting used to.’ (p.228)

As if they could all become entrepreneurs and generate an economy to save themselves and their town…

All the visions that Sam has are tragedies.  Her mother is not being entirely facetious when she says she wishes Sam could foretell the Lotto numbers, because her future is bleak.  She has a dreary job at the local Foodtown because that’s the only kind of job there is and even that is at risk as Clapstone becomes a tourist attraction due to its ‘ghost town’ status.  Young Sam, a teenager by now, tries to subvert the visions that she sees, and her input influences the design of a theme park.  It’s not a spoiler to tell you that it all ends badly…

Dyschronia is a metaphor for how it’s the little people who can see the terror of man’s assault upon the earth but big business and its cronies in government aren’t listening. It’s a bleak view of the world, exemplified by this masterpiece of self-delusion:

If he wanted to frighten us, it hasn’t worked.  The idea of that instability, of the earth cracking open and letting go its store, is not too shocking. Once you’ve survived a few catastrophes you stop taking them so personally.  It’s not that we want any more disasters, but we know what to do with them.  We remember them now as times that we came together, chose together, worked together.  We survived, became survivors.  What can one more accident do to us?  Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. (p. 314)

Last week Kim from Reading Matters was visiting from London, and we had morning tea at the Ricketts Point Teahouse, not far from my place.  It was a glorious Melbourne day, and the bay was looking its beautiful best.  I took these photos with my phone, squinting into the sun.  They’re not great photos, but they capture the colour of the sea and the sky, and they show you why I always drive home along the bay whenever I can.  The idea of the sea retreating into oblivion is just too ghastly to contemplate…

Jennifer Mills has, with this novel, succeeded in frightening me.

Author: Jennifer Mills
Title: Dyschronia
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan), 2018
ISBN: 9781760552206
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Dyschronia


  1. Just when I thought I’d done all my book shopping for this trip, this enticing review means I need to slip one more into the suitcase 🙄

    • Bon voyage!
      (Read this one on the plane!!)

      • Hopefully Perth Airport will have a copy I can purchase on Friday night. Local bookshop here (in Fremantle) doesn’t have it.

        • Bother! Good luck with the hunt:)

        • Not at New Edition, Freo? I shop at Crow Books, Vic Park (same owner) who will get in anything I ask for – which reminds me I should have dropped in today for Krissy Kneen.

  2. Another dystopian fiction. Australian writers are obviously getting nervous, the people are getting nervous, though probably not enough of them. Only Trumbull is not getting nervous, well not about our future anyway, not while his is consuming all his attention.

    • You know, I remember that a while ago I was on my soap box about Australian authors not writing about the big issues. It seemed that all they ever wrote about was dysfunctional families and *yawn* relationships. What interests me now is that there has been a bit of a shift, and that speculative fiction is leading the way. As it must, because all we can do (unhappily) is speculate…
      BTW Have you noticed that SBS is sprouting an ad that claims that if Australians reduce their energy use by 10% we can meet our Paris targets? No need for business or government to do anything at all, eh?

  3. As the granddaughter of a merchant seaman, the thought of the sea disappearing makes me shudder…. :((

    • Ah, they were brave men, especially in WW2.

  4. Sounds right up my alley.

    • I hope you like it!

  5. My rep raved about this book…its on my TBR pile patiently waiting it’s turn.

    I love that you & Kim caught up too – one of the PRO’s of this blogging life :-)

    • Everything Mills writes is gold, IMO…
      I met up with Kim in London way back when we were both comparative newbies in blogging. (She’s already celebrated her 10year anniversary, mine is this year). We’ve had catchups ever since, either when I’m there or she’s here. I’ve made some great friends through blogging:)

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