For whatever reason, popular literature is positively obsessed with the apocalypse, and has been for the past decade. On the pop end of the spectrum that results in works of entertaining fluff like The Walking Dead and on the more high-minded literary end we end up with a singular work of genius like Cormac McCarthy’s stark The Road. For the reader these stories allow a safe vicarious thrill, a game of “what-if”, in which we can place ourselves in danger and imagine that we’d react heroically. For the author, it’s a unique opportunity to disassemble the world and build their own in its place, allowing their own vision of humanity to emerge in ways that other genres might not allow.
All of this makes British writer Tom Ward’s debut novel, A Departure, so fascinating. Ward has built a reputation (he was recently awarded the Norman Mailer Student Writing Award) with finely tuned short stories that unfold through subtle layers of characterization and meaning. He has a particularly sensitive ear for dialogue—specifically the things that lovers keep from each other, rather than what they say. That attention to character helps his characters feel alive, and that life helps to set A Departure apart from other apocalyptic fiction.
A Departure finds young Michael Taylor on the run after a mysterious illness has killed his family and practically everybody in his suburban London neighborhood. Along the way he teams up with Judith, a middle-aged survivor and a bit of a pill. Judith unquestionably drags him down, but he can’t bear to leave her to fend for herself. Soon they come to a survivor camp where they meet the tough and beautiful Zanna, though the camp itself may not be what it appears.
Throughout the novel, Ward deftly weaves intense action scenes with quiet character moments, and both types of scene are made all the more vivid by Ward’s careful prose. In these sort of narratives it’s imperative to hold back enough information to keep the audience (and the characters) guessing, while keeping the action crisp enough that the reader is fully engaged. Ward walks that line with the skill of a seasoned novelist, as each new character or situation reveals more of the pieces of Michael’s old world, how it crumbled, and what the future may hold.
But what really sets A Departure apart is the humane care Ward takes with his characters. Every one of Michael’s actions has its consequence, and how long can he continue to care for those around him, and just how will he go to keep them all alive, and what will it cost him? And does he, in the end, owe them anything at all?
Ward’s novel is uniquely smart and uniquely British, culminating on the country’s shore as Michael stands facing a choice, but not facing it alone. It’s a well-paced adventure that hints at more to come, and of a much larger world beyond its borders, and of an unlimited promise for its young author.