Debut novel Swarm
By Lauren Carter
Published by Brindle & Glass
288 pages, $19.95
Reviewed by Jenny Boychuk
Capitalism has fallen. The government hardly exists except as whispers in condemned buildings. There are no jobs and everyone is poor. There is violence, rebellion. People have to quickly adapt to an older way of life—when living and surviving meant the same thing.
Lauren Carter’s first novel, Swarm, is narrated by Sandy, who lives in a previously abandoned house on a rural and isolated island with her partner, Marvin, and their elderly and dying friend, Thomson. Sandy and Marvin fish, hunt, farm and keep bees in order to survive.
“Things would never be what they were—brightly lit supermarkets with asparagus from Peru and frozen pasta in microwave-safe plastic bowls—”
“What are our battles? I could have asked, but didn’t. I thought I already knew. Survival, putting food on the table.”
When Sandy, never able to have children, finds the footprints of a small girl in her garden, it sparks a search and a yearning for something much larger than the child herself. The neighbour’s baby sleeps, sickly, in a blue recycling box—but Sandy still wants nothing more than a daughter of her own. She is preoccupied with what makes up a life, but is unable to differentiate between her fantasies and her reality.
Sandy addresses her story to the elusive child, whom she has named Melissa, as the book alternates from her past in the city to her present island life. It seems fitting that, in a time of so much isolation, Carter has her protagonist tell the story to someone who may not even exist.
“No matter what, I had to find you. You had to be real.”
The ambitious structure is effective in keeping up the pace of the novel, as well as in helping the reader understand how everything fell apart, and how all of those small collapses influence the characters’ present lives. This novel is terrifying because of how realistically Carter has built this dystopian world; it could very easily become our world in the near future. We are already seeing a lack of jobs and resources as the divide between rich and poor continues to grow larger in real life. Carter’s descriptions of this isolated island are easy to imagine—and it’s no doubt that the clear-eyed specificity comes from her upbringing in rural Blind River, Ontario.
I immediately identified with Sandy’s character, and I found myself asking the same questions she’s faced with: What do we risk for our ideals? How do you build a home from things you’ve never imagined or have never cared to? I found myself thinking about how I deal with my own unexpected realities. Though the naivety of Sandy’s character often annoyed me, it’s hard to judge her. When every day is a struggle to survive, it’s difficult to imagine that other stakes exist, but Carter corrects of this notion. Swarm is proof that, regardless of what our current world looks like, humans will always yearn for the same things: love, security, compassion, and companionship.
Carter’s debut reads like an elegy for an entire population, an entire planet. This somber world, paired with a wash of beauty in the prose, makes for a reading experience I can only compare to the blue hour of the day—something half-way between light and darkness.
“It was too late. Despite whatever I’d once wanted in a life, I had made my reality.”
Jenny Boychuk is British Columbia writer and reviewer