Is this eco-thriller a portrait of Britain’s nightmare future?

Roz Dineen's novel imagines a Britain-like country on the brink; pictured, London during a major fire in 2007
Roz Dineen's novel imagines a Britain-like country on the brink; pictured, London during a major fire in 2007 - EPA

Environmental catastrophe, civil unrest, terrorism: the nation is on the verge. “Every aspect of society [has] grown slowly worn and useless over years – the hospitals, the schools, the transport, the food.” The climate is collapsing, and the heat is unbearable. Butterflies die en masse – “little black bodies smashed and sticky, with still-twitching legs” – as wildfires roll across the land.

In her disturbing and stylish debut novel, Briefly Very Beautiful, set in a dystopian version of a Britain-like country, Roz Dineen depicts the shift between what have become known as the Old World and the New. The decline has been gradual. People have been leaving ‘The City’ one by one; the government has slowly ceased to function. Ecological breakdown has engendered financial and political instability, which in turn has led to the rise of Gaia, a group of male eco-terrorists who worship Mother Earth and carry out an attack in a children’s playground.

Amid all this, one woman and her children flee their urban home for the countryside. Cass, mother to a one-year-old baby, has only memories of emails, iced coffee and the internet, all now relics of the past. “Before everything became awful,” she thinks, “it was briefly very beautiful.” The family – composed of her two step-children and her child; her husband is overseas – leave after the escalating terror attacks approach their house, and the air becomes too polluted to breathe.

With some assistance from Cass’s husband’s family, they travel across the country, negotiating internal migration controls, attempting to reach the cleaner, cooler northern regions. All the time, they’re seeking water and food, as well as contact with Cass’s husband, a doctor, whose own story of life in a foreign land is interwoven throughout. Their journey moves with ease between precise description and the broad ambitions of a saga: “When you have to leave, you will be able to. You will get the children out of there. You will carry them away. You will reassess: you will hear the sanity in what you’d thought was madness, and the madness in what you’d thought was sane.”

As she moves the family across this unnamed land, Dineen sketches out dark visions of its social and political reality. Refugees collect at border zones; semi-anarchic clusters of ecological resistance develop; the wealthy speak “like money” and move to private compounds. Although the bigger political picture has become obscure to Cass and co, there are occasional references to the “Black Box Government”, a failed institution that has retreated into silence after failing to secure its pledge of a “liveable future for all”.

Briefly Very Beautiful is Dineen's debut novel
Briefly Very Beautiful is Dineen's debut novel - Sophie Davidson

Like the characters, however, we don’t know much more than this. We’re told relatively little even of Cass’s own attitude towards the leaders who’re implied to have been in power during society’s decay. At one point, as if to justify this, Cass reflects that everyone has become mentally lazy through the heat; even so, it’s frustrating to not have the characters discuss their own society, especially the children, whose interactions with Cass are otherwise realistically playful, and in doing so bring levity to a plot that can, at times, be unremittingly grim. The intelligent and curious Vi, at eight years old, would surely have wanted to ask Cass more questions about the world.

On the other hand, Dineen was previously fiction editor at the Times Literary Supplement, and her years of close reading are evident.The prose is fluent and precise in describing horrors both physical and psychological. At times, it lifts into the grandeur of classical myth, transcending a story of personal survival, but Dineen keeps the novel grounded in the immediacy of the characters’ physical concerns.

Not every character is fully realised, particularly Cass’s husband and her step-mother: they’re presented clearly as on one side or another. Set against the hauntingly realistic landscape, dialogue and action, this sometimes frustrated; but on the other hand, it also put me in mind of Greek tragedy, in which characters are rendered true through action and peril, not the trappings of personality. Their concerns are raw and urgent, their lives a matter of daily survival; that urgency makes the book almost impossible to put down. Dineen’s debut may be the stuff of sleepless nights; at least, then, you can awake in the old and beautiful world that, for now, remains your own.

Briefly Very Beautiful is published by Bloomsbury at £16.99. To order your copy for £14.99, call 0808 196 6794 or visit Telegraph Books