Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 5, 2022

Closing Down, by Sally Abbott

Amongst the prizes that contribute to Australia’s literary culture are those that are not for already published works, but have been established to identify emerging writers, and to offer the winners a contract for publication.  Launched in 1980 the Vogel is, I think, the best-known of these, but there is also the TAG Hungerford Award launched in 1988 and more recently Hachette’s Richell prize, launched in 2015 in memory of Hachette Australia’s CEO, Matt Richell, who died suddenly in July 2014.

Sally Abbott was the inaugural winner of the Richell Prize in 2015, chosen, according to an interview at The Guardian, from among 969 other submissions, and Closing Down was published in 2017. The novel went on to be shortlisted for an Aurealis Award for Science Fiction, which surprised me because it never occurred to me that this book was SF.  The Aurealis Award for Speculative Fiction has categories for SF, Fantasy and Horror, but doesn’t differentiate between SF and Speculative Fiction so by their definition I’ve read lots of SF and by Wikipedia’s definition, (see below) I’ve read very little.

Closing Down is set in a disturbing future world, but it’s a very near future world, with recognisable elements exposed for what they are. The world has been corporatised and realigned, and this means that uneconomic small towns are being closed down and the people relocated to mega cities. Shelter, for the ‘lucky’ ones, is in tiny flats in soulless concrete canyons, but the waiting lists are years long.  For the others that means refugee camps on a scale not so far from those horrific wastelands in the Middle East and Europe, and for others, it means joining the walkers. These people evade the travel permits and patrols, and—carrying everything they own—walk out into the arid interior and are never heard of again.

Clare, about to be homeless because her ratbag cottage has to be demolished because it isn’t fireproof, calls the unemployment office to notify them of her change of address.  She doesn’t have a new one, but she won’t be living at the old one any more. After she’d pressed every available option and waited for three hours, a voice did come on the line. She needn’t have bothered.

‘I’ve always had to tell you guys everything.  Otherwise I can’t get my benefit.’

‘Used to.  Not any more.  now we know everything.  All the time.  No telling necessary.’

[…]

‘How do you know?’

‘Your phone, of course.’

‘But I’ve always had my phone.’

‘Well, that was your phone then, honey, and this is your phone now.  No one does paper any more.  Not here.  I can’t remember when I last touched the stuff.  Now I’m looking at everything I need to know about you.  Let me see… so, you were once a hairdresser.  And you did cleaning work. Lovely. Ah, you’re in D segment.’

What’s D segment?’

‘Doomed, dear.  Doomed. ‘ The voice broke into a high-pitched giggle.’ ‘Disaster. Dead. Doomed.’

Clare said nothing.  This seemed entirely plausible.

‘Just our little joke, of course.’ When Clare stayed silent, the voice became anxious.  ‘Really sweetie, just a joke. After all, we’re all doomed, aren’t we? Well, the humans anyway.  Don’t take it personally.’ (pp. 97-8)

The voice goes on to explain that her phone is the naughty lover who tells us all your secrets.’  They have a history of exactly where’s she been, and they know she hasn’t had a paid job for eight years, and that her husband last worked at a canning factory which doesn’t exist any more.  This voice knows how to warn off any complaints: they could put an alert on Clare since the fudging around her work history is suspicious. The voice knows it isn’t possible for Clare and her husband Phil to survive on handouts.

In faraway China, or some place that’s owned by China, the voice doesn’t know about the informal market at the closed railway station. It’s where people go to buy and sell their pathetic possessions to supplement their benefits and the ration packs that provide bizarre combinations of often inedible food. The market is under the radar though it often has to melt into the night when authorities arrive.

‘People really have no idea,’ the voice was saying. ‘There’s drones, there’s CCTV, there’s vehicle and travel permits, there’s fingerprints on file, there’s phones with their cameras and location tracing and financial identification and verification sensor. Of course we know most things about most people, and especially where they are.  It is so very expensive to hide.  It really is.’ (p.100).

As people caught up in the Optus hack know only too well, there’s nothing futuristic about any of that scenario. And the government now wants to kick-start the rollout of a national identity system?  Seriously?

Closing Down was published before the recent floods that pushed the price of a single lettuce to a dollar. But the novel skewers The Waiter’s Nightmare all the same.  Ella, who works in Human rights settling refugees, and Robbie, who’s a journalist exposing stories for which he is regularly fined by the government, are idealists.  But they are rich.  They enjoy a lifestyle beyond imagining for the likes of Clare and the rest of the underclass.  Meeting up together in Nairobi, they’re at dinner when a woman they know places an order:

Ashley was ordering now, loudly and slowly.  ‘I’ll have the caesar but hold the anchovies, egg and cheese and just a drop of mayo.  Croutons on the side, not in the salad.  And a double vodka, straight up. And a glass of ice.  Oh, and a serve of fries.  No, two serves.  And some ketchup.’

The waiter looked at her.  ‘So, for the salad, you just want lettuce.’

‘With a little mayo. And croutons on the side.’

‘Yes, madam.  But we have no lettuce today.’

‘No lettuce.’

‘None.  Not one leaf.’

‘How the hell do you do a caesar without lettuce?’

‘Exactly, madam.’

‘Or without anchovies and egg and cheese.’ Robbie said quietly.

Ella smiled.

‘I’d say your menu is misleading. Very misleading.’

‘Well, madam—’

‘You have caesar salad on your menu and that’s what I want.’

‘We have everything for a caesar salad except lettuce.  Well, almost.’

‘Almost?’

‘The anchovies are sardines.  There are no anchovies.’ (pp. 129-130)

A man at a nearby table intervenes in this scene.  He points out that there isn’t much food in this country, but they have plenty of diamonds.  He gives her one, and tells her to eat it.

I suspect that many of us who care about the gross inequality of our world enjoy the schadenfreude implicit in this scene. Entitlement can only take ’em only so far!

Despite the seriousness of the author’s concerns, Closing Down is not nihilistic. The characterisation of strong, resilient people like Clare, Granna Adams and Robbie asserts the truth of the blurb:

No matter how strange, difficult and absurd the world becomes, some things never change. The importance of home. Of love. Of kindness to strangers. Of memories and dreams.

Closing Down was favourably reviewed in the SMH, (‘a polished, accomplished, imaginative novel’); the ABR (‘an arresting vision of survival and resilience in a broken world’) and The Saturday Paper, (‘The characters and their strange world are so powerfully drawn that the book’s oppressive mood lingers with the reader long after they’ve looked up from the page’.)

Jennifer at Tasmanian Bibliophile at Large reviewed it too. 

Author: Sally Abbott
Title: Closing Down
Publisher: Hachette, 2017
Cover design by Grace West
ISBN: 9780733635946, pbk., 281 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books $29.99

From Wikipedia (links removed):

Science fiction (sometimes shortened to Sci-Fi or SF) is a genre of speculative fiction which typically deals with imaginative and futuristic concepts such as advanced science and technology, space exploration, time travel, parallel universes, extraterrestrial life, sentient artificial intelligence, cybernetics, certain forms of immortality (like mind uploading), and the singularity.


Responses

  1. Thanks for the link, Lisa. And yes, this one lingers …

    Like

    • I looked to see if she’d written anything since., but I couldn’t find anything. I hope she does. It’s not just that she writes about important things, she also writes exceptionally well.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Lots of interesting writers seem to have only one book in them – after school and before the real world grinds them down I suppose. Love the sound of this one, and I’ll link to your review when I get AWW Gen 5-SFF underway.

    Like

    • The very interesting thing about this debut novel is that the author appears to be ‘a late bloomer’. If you click on the link to the Guardian interview (paragraph 2) you will see that she’s had a bit of time for life to ‘grind her down’, and there’s a review of the book which says she was 57 when it was published, and writing the novel is a second career after journalism in rural and regional areas in the 80s and 90s. See https://dailyreview.com.au/sally-abbotts-first-novel-closing-opens-new-career/
      I’m never sure about what you like to read, but I hope you do like this one!

      Like

  3. What an interesting, and very relevant-sounding book. I should read more which deals with the worlds issues, but tbh I don’t always feel resilient enough…

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