I’m sitting here writing this review with the radio on low in the background. The news has just been on, and even though what’s happening is very real I still can’t shake off the feeling we will wake up and be told it was all a dream.
In a period of state-sanctioned exercise and rationed food, I have lost myself in M.T. Hill’s The Breach, a story of infection, incubation, contagion and transmission, of invasion and quarantine, that, although very much firmly in the sci-fi realm, could not be more appropriate right now.
The Breach is told in the main by local newspaper reporter Freya and Shep, a thrill-seeking trainee steeplejack. Freya is sent to cover the funeral of a young climber, Stephen, whose death is not as straightforward as it’s being claimed. When Shep isn’t shimmying up sky-high stacks for work, he is an urban explorer – a highly illegal activity in this near future world they live in. They cross paths when Freya uncovers a post uploaded to an urbex forum by Stephen, showing what appears to be a nest. As Freya’s probe into the circumstances of his death grows more unsettling, both she and Shep journey headlong into a situation with devastating consequences.
Hill’s storytelling is second-to-none. In The Breach he has created a near-future in the north west of England, which is perhaps only a few steps ahead of where we are now. Sometimes I find all-out sci-fi too far ahead to be appealing; it’s just my taste. However, Hill has a familiar, literary tone and writes so realistically that by the time there was a mention of building elevators to the moon to harvest a new energy source, I didn’t bat an eyelid. There are driverless cars and fridges that automatically order – and over order – food when they need to top up. Offences of carjacking and retina theft stand side by side in the court reports. It’s a world where anonymity is illegal but it’s possible to buy DNA saliva strips to become someone else. A world where computers with mouses are vintage (like today, you may say!), and though sat nav may be projected onto a visor it still has a patchy signal. So, not a massive leap from 2020 but enough for Hall to exercise his imagination on some beautifully constructed tech. I don’t intend to ruminate on how far we’ve come in such a short time but it is pretty impressive considering Ceefax was where I used to read the news, yet now I can say a song aloud and it magically plays from a tiny box in the corner of the room. And neither does Hill: he makes no judgement on whether tech is bad or good; he merely presents a version of what could happen, and boy is it convincing.
His choice of alternate male-female narrators is a clever move in terms of audience appeal, but mostly it represents this world from two very different viewpoints. Freya, smarting from a relationship break-up, is in a non-starter of a job. She has moved back into her parents’ bungalow, desperate for that one big story that will kick her back into life. Noticing some peculiarities surrounding Stephen’s death, she chases it without her editor’s knowledge, and it soon becomes more than just a story. On the other side of the story is Shep, whose basest urge is to be alone and finds happiness exploring sites protected by dogs and sonic barriers and glue traps and posting reports online. Thankfully, in this environment of zero privacy and where everyone leaves a trace, there are ways to go underground and off the grid. A tip-off from a drone operator leads Shep to what appears to be a virgin urbex site in the Lake District, and so begins a fast-paced, riveting spiral into… well, I’ll leave that for you to find out. Freya and Shep don’t know it but they are heroes, each in a different way, and as the tale played out, I was sad to leave them behind.
That’s where the author shines, in my opinion. He kept me absorbed right until the final line; immersed in a place that, though very much futuristic, was not at all out of reach. I’ve already briefly mentioned the literary tone of the novel, which I very much enjoyed because of the sheen of reality it gave the narration. Additionally, Hill has the knack of using tiny elements of other genres. His folk horror-type descriptions of the countryside and nature – “The burning starts mid-evening, when Lakeland greens have run to gold and the foxes on heat are shrieking,” goes the opening line – are lovely details. Freya’s investigation into Stephen’s death is very much in the detective story tradition. And this brings me onto the language overall, as there is much to be admired. For example, the sheer volume of times the characters express fear is astonishing skill-wise because what’s essentially the same sensation is described differently on every occasion.
I’ve read some horrifying stuff in my time. The Breach notches up the fear incrementally, almost imperceptibly. Before you know it, we are head-deep in a skin-crawling version of life, where what’s real and what isn’t merges. I read with the same feverishness as the protagonists, dreading what was to come yet compelled to turn the pages. Dread literally drips from the pages. And in this strange environment we all find ourselves in in 2020, fighting a virus with unknown consequences, reading a novel where everything one knows to be true is questioned was truly unsettling.
The Breach is a smart novel for our ever-shifting times and a reminder of our fragility. It also gives us the space to draw our own conclusion on what it is to be human. And it allows us to really think about our rights to privacy and to be an individual. Most of all it’s a rollicking good read, with a resonance that lasts long after the final page has turned. Trust me, this one will get under your skin.
The Breach by M.T. Hill is published by Titan Books; published 17th March 2020.