I’m not usually one for a post-apocalyptic setting, and now might really not have been the time to read about the collapse of civilisation, but If Darkness Takes Us really blew me away with its clever and realistic portrayal of one woman trying to cope in a barely-functioning world.
Book: If Darkness Takes Us by Brenda Marie Smith
Read before: No
Ownership: E-ARC provided free of charge via NetGalley. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: Death (dog and human, including major characters); gun violence; injuries; immediately post-apocalyptic setting (but not one humans caused); pregnancy complications and miscarriage; stroke/neurological event; mild emotional abuse.
How often do you get to see an older woman centred in science-fiction, especially in survival fiction? Rarely do you even come across an over-40, let alone a 70 year old grandmother just trying to keep her grandchildren alive in a post-apocalyptic world. But Bea, the protagonist of If Darkness Takes Us, is exactly that – a softly-spoken Texan grandma with a secret prepper’s hoard who turns out to be the most capable person in her small town when a solar flare causes an electromagnetic pulse that takes out all electricity and infrastructure. She happened to be babysitting her four grandchildren, ranging in age from six to seventeen, and with her husband and children out of town, she has to make the most of the family she has within her reach.
Bea is a fantastic character. She narrates the story in first person and her voice is so compelling and easy to read. As she sets up the backstory for the day the world broke, you get lulled into her matter-of-fact style, almost as if this is a true memoir and not fiction. It’s an interesting tone for the book to take, and one that had me incredibly emotionally invested. Bea is clearly an intelligent and strong woman who’s devoted to her family, and it’s really nice to see that cleverness and caring nature co-exist so easily. This is what I’m talking about when I say I want variety in the way women’s strength is represented. Physically, she struggles – she has a heart condition and could definitely not be a gun-toting action hero kind of leader – but it’s her inner strength and her smarts that keep her and her grandkids going. I loved that (despite a small amount of unreliability due to the first-person narration), we get a pretty warts-and-all picture of her, as she is forced to confront parts of herself that she would rather deny, and she is definitely complex. Also, she is allowed a romantic subplot, and actually has sex! I can’t get over how sadly unusual it is for an older woman not to be completely desexed in fiction, if she appears at all.
The book gets dark. I’ll say now that if you didn’t read the list of content warnings above, you might want to. Some of it is hard reading, and it made me cry at one point. I know that post-apocalyptic fiction is a touchy subject for a lot of people right now, and this book in particular doesn’t flinch away from the darker side of things. There are no real heroes, just people surviving, and it’s fascinating to see how that looks on different people. Bea’s small town community is more or less trapped in their homes (due to the lack of transport in part, but also massive chemical spills from derailed trains and broken-down power plants. I did appreciate that this book wasn’t at all preachy about humans having destroyed the earth – the apocalyptic event is a random one caused by a huge solar flare, so there is no angst or guilt about whether it could have been avoided (though of course, there is the question of how far humans have come to rely on technology, to their eventual detriment). Anyway, the limited community setting allows for a certain amount of recognisable neighbourhood rivalry and tension, which adds a really interesting dimension to the character relationships as the apocalypse brings out the best and worst in people.
One of the things I loved about this was that the ending is bittersweet, and manages to tie things up in a way that feels somewhat satisfying, but absolutely does not magic anything better. It would have been a disservice to the story’s depth to have things fixed. That’s not to say it isn’t hopeful – it sort of is – but it’s not an easy ending. That’s true of the whole book really. It’s the epitome of hopepunk – how caring and community can be the best way forward in times of disaster, and in the face of utter terror, even if they don’t, and can’t, fix everything. God, this book is just powerful. I think I’m going to be thinking about it for a long time.
With the caveat to take care of yourself if you’re not feeling mentally up to the subject matter, I would say that anyone with an interest in post-apocalyptic or science fiction, or who has ever longed for an older female protagonist, ought to read this. It’s feminist, and distressingly believable, and terrifying, and hopeful, and just brilliant. Five out of five cats.