Book review

The Scavenger's Tale by Rachel Anderson (1998)

A natural for the horror section, this book is a truly awful view of the future. The story is set in London after some terrible event, a war presumably, which they call the great Conflagration. Financial recovery has been achieved for the A-Classified inhabitants by developing a very special tourist industry. There are Heritage Centres for the visitors to while away a little time if they are strong enough, but the main purpose of their visit to London is to receive medical treatment in the hospitals and clinics.

We used to see some of the sick foreigners just before curfew-time, being pushed out by their attendants, sallow-skinned, pathetic wrecks, gulping from their oxygen flasks. They come to this country for their holidays. But few of them look as though they're enjoying it.

Life isn't good for everyone in London though. Bedford lives in an Unapproved Temporary Dwelling with his foster mother, Ma Peddle, and other fostered children. They have two rooms, with broken windows and cockroaches, water is fetched from the standpipe in the street, and they live off what they can scavenge from the skips round the back of the tourist hotels, and coupons to use at the ration Exchange Centre, (turnips are currently plentiful...). But the Peddle family pull together and look out for each other:

The fact is, my sister Devonshire is a Dysfunc. Not that this matters to us at home. I have a dysfunctional elder brother too. And my newest sister, Netta, is dysfunctional with CP. That's cerebral palsy. It means she was damaged at birth, though not on purpose. In fact, I'm the only person in our family who hasn't got a profound impairment.

Bedford goes off on a 'scavvy' after school one evening, taking with him his Down's Syndrome sister, Dee, and his severely retarded brother, Rah. Bedford is remarkably patient and careful with them. The 'scavvy' is not very successful until, poking about in the muddy foreshore with a stick, Rah finds a man. Since he is not quite dead, they load him into a shopping trolley and trundle him home as quickly and quietly as they can.

And now the tension really starts to mount. The stranger has had a kidney removed, apparently against his wishes. He mutters darkly about how bad things are in London, and tries to persuade Ma Peddle to take her whole family away. But where could they go? Then the low-caste and abnormal and dysfunctional children are separated at school and 'tagging' is introduced. The tag is terribly clever - it constantly monitors the body's exact state of health and the condition of the main organs, twenty four hours a day. Now why would anyone need such a high level of medical supervision?

Bedford is unwilling to believe the evidence, but the truth gradually becomes clear to him. The standpipes are turned off in the unapproved residential areas, and while Bedford has to walk further afield for his water, CHAWMs (Community Health and Welfare Monitors) cruise menacingly up and down in their cars. I was frightened to death.

If you want to know what happens to Bedford, and his family, you will have to read the book. But this is a real dystopian novel - that is, a novel set in an imaginary future where things are as bad as they possibly could be. The exact opposite of utopia. So don't expect a great ending.

Not what I would call an enjoyable read, but highly recommended. Called The Scavenger's Tale, presumably, as a reference to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, since Bedford finds himself making just the same pilgrimage. One thing though, why does Rachel Anderson set this book in 2015? Since such a society could obviously not come about in fifteen years, is she trying to reassure us that she does not think this future could really come to pass? Or does she think elements of this society are already with us in the year 2001? Does our present attitude to 'dysfuncs' stand up to scrutiny? And how did you feel when Bedford pushed his sister and ran for it?

What can I read next?

This book had such an impact on me that it is difficult to find something else to follow it with. You might really enjoy this long novel by Jan Mark, which is also for mature readers:

If you would like to follow up the question of attitude to 'dysfuncs', perhaps you could look at this one by Reinhardt Jung:

Or you could look at Melvin Burgess' vision of London in the future riven by warring families - (not for the faint-hearted):

Also, the Bookchooser has found these books with a similar profile:

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