I was about eleven-years-old when my extended family went on a holiday to Alibaug, a coastal town near Bombay famous for its beaches. After a long sunny day of touring the town’s historic fort and frolicking on the beach, the other children and I were just about ready to return to the hotel and drop unconscious on our beds, when the adults, in a sudden fit of piety, decided they wanted to visit the local temple.
The little ones’ protests and grumblings were ignored, and off we went. The temple was incredibly crowded, making me distinctly uncomfortable. My mother told me to firmly grasp her hand so that we wouldn’t get separated, but it was impossible in the scrum to obey her. Inevitably, I felt our interlocked fingers wrenched apart as a horde of devotees swarmed toward the sanctum sanctorum.
I still remember the primal terror I felt; I might be knocked over and stepped on, I might be abducted, I might never see my family again — all these possibilities went through my head in an instant. Fortunately, I had the good sense to go back to the main entrance and wait there until my worried father eventually came and found me.
I’ve never forgotten those moments of terror, and over the years, I’ve come to realise that at the core of that terror was the sudden and inexplicable loss of communication between my family and me. It’s hard to imagine it in the era of smartphones, but there was a time when we weren’t constantly in touch with each other on instant messaging apps or social media, and the prospect of being cut off from loved ones in an emergency was very real and very terrifying.
It is that terror that propels a lot of Gavin Shoebridge’s debut novel, Unprepared (2020). The novel narrates the events that occur in the aftermath of an electromagnetic pulse attack that fries every electronic device in the United States and leaves nearly 330 million people without any means of communicating with each other.
Look around you, and you’ll see that nearly everyone is using some sort of device at any given moment. You’re probably reading this on your phone, Kindle, tablet, or PC right now! Now imagine if, in the blink of an eye, it all disappeared. Imagine if you were stranded where you were because car batteries no longer worked. Imagine food rotting away in refrigerators and meat lockers because they couldn’t cool it anymore.
Imagine aeroplanes falling out of the sky and hospital patients on life support dying in their sleep. And probably worst of all, imagine being unable to watch, hear, or even read the news and contact loved ones while all this was happening because the television and radio didn’t work, and neither did the printing press. It’s an awful picture, and Shoebridge brings it to life vividly and realistically. However, what makes the novel stand out from other post-apocalyptic works of this kind is that, after the initial introductory scene, he chooses to focus the action almost entirely on the protagonists, David and Kelly, a survivalist couple in Virginia, USA.
This is a smart decision because it keeps the narrative streamlined while losing none of its intensity and urgency. David and Kelly are your typical yuppie DINK (double income no kids) couple, but they are more prepared than most people for the disaster because they are preppers — people who enjoy being prepared for disasters. However, they are still two regular human beings enduring an unprecedented disaster, and their interactions with each other and with the people they meet are part of what makes the novel so compelling.
The attack occurs when the couple is returning from Tennessee (where they had gone to wait out a hurricane) to Virginia, leaving them stranded with their now-useless car on the highway along with thousands of other motorists. They have to make it back home on foot, and from here the pace picks up and becomes relentless. I won’t spoil it, but suffice it to say that there’s an aeroplane, a gossip-mad pregnant woman, a crazy old redneck, and an enterprising car salesman (!) involved.
Once the couple does make it home, the pace slows down, giving readers time to breathe and take in the protagonists’ altered reality. The novel leaps from action-heavy set pieces to quieter, more reflective moments with aplomb, and you never feel exhausted by the former or bored by the latter. Shoebridge brings delightful moments of beauty and levity to the darkness of the characters face.
For example, in one charming sequence, the characters are able to have a proper meal for the first time in months. The author describes their pure joy in simple but expressive language: “No one spoke during the meal, all overwhelmed with the feeling of oily, cooked meat washing over their taste buds . . . The combination of goose and rum gently lightened the forlorn mood, and after dinner they sat on the sofa, talking about life before the pulse.”
Someone starts singing while someone else keeps time with their hands and the “living room [comes] to life“. A previously frustrated David “[feels] the magic in that cold living room, allowing his embittered heart to open.” In these dreadful times, when we’re all locked in our homes because of the coronavirus and are facing an uncertain future, scenes like these have an expected resonance. In fact, nearly all the scenes with David and Kelly locked indoors will seem familiar to readers today, making them wonder if Shoebridge was prescient.
The book has a steep liberal slant, but this doesn’t take away from the power of its narrative. Some moments may seem a bit jarring or even offensive to certain readers, particularly when the author appears to be pushing his own liberal viewpoint. For example, the author explains David and Kelly’s decision not to have children in a long, almost sermon-like sequence. I found it interesting and thought it added depth to the characters, but I can see how more conservative readers may be offended by it — particularly when the author mentions birth control and advocates enjoying sex without the “unwanted byproduct of children”.
There are arguments about God and politics, but they are not heavy-handed (most of the time), and they are in keeping with the apocalyptic subject matter. At the same time, I imagine a professional editor at a publishing house (the book was self-published) would have checked most of the author’s excesses — like a scene where a man styling himself as ‘God’ is shot, and the author can’t resist equipping, “God was indeed dead”, or another, very serious scene (which I won’t spoil) where the author inserts himself into his work through a note to the reader.
A major event towards the end of the novel sends the narrative hurtling towards the climax, which again I won’t spoil. Safe to say it involves a race against time on bicycles and a water tank cut open to turn it into a makeshift boat, speeding down some rapids.
The ending is open-ended and can go in a hundred different directions in the sequel (which the author is already working on), especially given how creatively fertile and malleable Shoebridge’s American playground is. Shoebridge, who’s originally from New Zealand but has lived in Slovakia and currently resides in the United States, is somewhat of a renaissance man with a wide range of interests and experiences, including voiceover work and electric car conversions.
He comes from both an engineering and journalistic background, so it’s no surprise that his characters are so well etched out and instantly relatable, and his language so precise and accessible. Unprepared is a relatively short work and can be finished in a few hours, which is a pity because I for one can’t wait to find out what Shoebridge does next with this lawless, dangerous, ruthless and yet unexpectedly compassionate and even humorous narrative sandbox he has created.