As one might guess from the title, The Doomsday Book of Fairy Tales offers a dystopian setting, but Emily Brewes endows the book with a sense of lightness despite the grim backdrop.
The story is told in first person from the viewpoint of protagonist Jesse Vanderchuck. Jesse is one of those names that could be used for either a male or female, and interestingly, the author has chosen not to specify Jesse’s gender, leaving it up to the reader to interpret. For the purpose of the review, I’ll refer to Jesse as “she” though other readers can draw their own conclusions.
The “Doomsday” portion of the novel’s title relates to the state of the planet after an environmental collapse. Flooding, droughts, blight, wildfires, outbreaks of a new strain of rabies, almost-intolerable summer heat—the list of calamities is a long one, hence the choice of some to retreat underground. Though Jesse’s family tried to make a go of it for a time on their farm outside Trout Creek, Ontario, eventually Jesse, her younger sister Olivia, and her mother made their way to the Underground community, located beneath Toronto. Their father, who felt “the only way he could carry on was to behave as though nothing was wrong,” remained behind.
Jesse lives under Toronto’s Union Station and grubs out a living, as do many of her compatriots, by sifting through refuse heaps in hopes of scavenging items of value that can be traded for food, clothing, or other necessities. By the start of the novel, Jesse is alone. Her mother died just shy of age 50, while her sister lit out at age 12 to try to find out what became of their father.
One day, Jesse runs across a dog in the Underground. By this time in humanity’s evolution, pets are unheard of. There simply aren’t the resources to feed and shelter them. But Jesse decides to keep the dog, who she names Doggo, for company. She needs to sneak him into her home and keep him in hiding, for fear that others in the community will make her give him up or worse, convert him into a menu item.
Not that he looks appetizing. Jesse describes him as “the scrawniest mutt I’d ever seen, with wiry hair in nearly every colour a dog comes in.” Doggo’s physical appearance may not amount to much, but he has other qualities. Doggo is able to talk, although Jesse is the only one who appears to hear him.
The human-canine interaction provides some of the book’s lighter moments. Brewes’ depiction of Doggo’s comments and behaviour suggest a familiarity with the canine persona. Doggo refers to Jesse as “Food Bringer,” and though Doggo is obsessed with food (not surprising, given its scarcity), he is also philosophical about the lack of it, and about life in general. Below is a typical example of the dialogue between Doggo and Jesse:
“I am hungry, Food Bringer.”
“Witness my complete lack of surprise.”
Silence for a second or two while Doggo looked at me, his tongue lolling in a grin. “It is witnessed. Now may we eat?”
Though Doggo comes across as not the sharpest knife in the proverbial drawer, Jesse welcomes his companionship, noting, “It’s easier when there’s someone else, to talk to or to care for. Then the thoughts can reach outward instead of turning on themselves. The lonely brain is a special kind of nightmare.” Partly because she fears what might happen to Doggo if she stays in the Underground, and partly because she has contracted some kind of cough (illness is looked on with great suspicion in the Underground, since many of the diseases formerly eradicated have made a comeback), Jesse decides to head for the surface to see if she can find out what happened to Olivia and her Dad.
The rest of the book depicts the results of that quest, while periodically dipping back into Jesse’s past to provide context. The book also includes fairy tales of Jesse’s own creation; hence the reference in the title. Jesse’s motivation for telling stories to Doggo and to herself is multi-pronged. Telling them evokes a sense of nostalgia for a time when her father used to read fairy tales to her. She also finds that telling stories helps to pass the time. Brewes weaves together the multiple facets of the story—past and present, fantasy and reality—deftly enough that I was always able to follow along.
Despite the dark setting, some of the prose is lyrical; for example, in the description of a beach in British Columbia in the opening scene: “Gulls wheeled like shreds of paper being juggled on competing breezes, their gurgling laughter bouncing between sea and sky.” Jesse herself tells the story with plenty of sarcasm and self-deprecating humor. The fact that her quest is a simple and personal one keeps the novel from feeling overly heavy despite the dystopian setting. Some bad things do happen, but Jesse’s detached manner of storytelling helps to blunt the impact. That being said, some readers may find certain events and references disturbing.
One of the functions of dystopias besides the entertainment value offered by any good work of fiction is their ability to spark a desire not to see that kind of future evolve, and therefore get people to do something about it. In the case of The Doomsday Book of Fairy Tales, the warning signs of environmental collapse were there, along with dire prophecies from the likes of David Suzuki. And yet, when everything started to unravel, people spent their time in denial, casting blame, or arguing over what measures ought to be taken, until it was too late.
Will we make the same mistake? Time will tell. Until then, The Doomsday Book of Fairy Tales offers one image of what might lie ahead if humanity plays its cards wrong.
Emily Brewes grew up in the wilds of northern Ontario, where she learned to be afraid of nature, especially bugs. She now writes wistfully of its rugged beauty and haunting landscapes. Emily lives in Kingston, Ontario.
- Publisher : Dundurn Press (May 11 2021)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 296 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1459747003
- ISBN-13 : 978-1459747005
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