Line by Niall Bourke

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Reviewed by Annabel

If I searched, I could probably fill a small shelf full of novels that have a sub-niche of their own that is the ‘queue’. Within that we have sub-groupings, Josephine Tey’s mystery, The Man in the Queue follows theatregoers waiting to see a play, and Olga Grushin’s super novel The Line aka The Concert Ticket, set in St Petersburg as music-lovers queue for tickets to Stravinsky’s comeback concert. There is the political one – The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz (which we reviewed here); Vladimir Sorokin’s 1983 novel, also translated as The Queue celebrates the Russian institution of queuing told all in dialogue – I’d love to read this one. All of which finally brings me to the latest addition to my shelf queue: Line, the debut novel by Irish author Niall Bourke from Tramp Press, and I’m delighted Shiny is the first stop on this book’s blog tour today.

How would I describe Line? Well, it’s the dystopian spec fiction one, and I’d go one step further to describe it as having distinctive ‘Ballardian’ overtones, which really excited me.

The novel begins by introducing us to main protagonist Willard and his mother.

And always before dawn come his mother’s calluses.

Willard feels her leathered palms scratching at his shoulder, rousing him. He smells the billy-fires. Morning again, he curses.

—Up, up, she says. Water. And the roof too, while you’re about it.

Willard tries to roll off, to disappear back into his ragged excuse for a blanket. Her hands disappear and he thinks he has won – but then she whips the blanket away, leaving him shivering in his shirt under the dirty tarpaulin.

—Are we moving? He says, eyes still shut. I’m not getting up if we aren’t moving.

—No, says Mother, walking away. […]

—But I’ve heard rumblings, she says. A big shift. And coming soon. Very soon. Maybe today.

—That’s what you said yesterday, says Willard.

Willard and his mother in their makeshift tent live somewhere in the line, where isn’t specified, but they’re next to Mr Hummel who is one of the elders, and Willard’s girlfriend Nyla lives a bit ahead of them. Their whole days are spent trying to survive, making do, mending, trading. Nyla and Willard hope to marry soon, and Nyla will have to move down the line to join Willard; moving down to marry proves the love is true according to the rules.

As we’ve gathered, Willard is fed up with being where they are. He’d like the line to move to a new area, with new latrine holes for starters! They must be ready to pack up their little camps at short notice if the line moves. Once in a blue moon, there is a food drop and Willard must go up the line to collect a ‘bindle’ of supplies for himself, his mother and Mr Hummel – but you must return by nightfall. Being caught out of your place in the line is against the rules.

The rules are tough and strictly applied; no-one moves up the line except by people moving down. If you leave the line, the penalty is death if you try, and the wardens catch you. That’s what happened to Willard’s father.

Bourke builds up the picture of life living in the line in a series of short chapters, almost vignettes, each taking in one aspect. Each day is both tedious and a challenge and that comes across very clearly. Willard is lucky that he has Nyla to ground him.

Then one day his mother dies and everything changes, and changes again once they find a book hidden amongst her things which hints of things outside the line. To say much more about what happens would probably spoil things, but as you might guess, Willard and Nyla make a decision that will change their lives, and what happens from here onwards takes on the feel of JG Ballard’s dystopias that particularly recalled The Drowned World to me.

Obviously, Line is an allegory of totalitarianism and the subservience of the downtrodden masses. I was full of questions: Who is in charge? Who started the line? Where does it go? What’s at the beginning, and the end? Where do the food drops come from? Is there anything else? What was in Willard’s mother’s book? You can expect some answers in the second half of the story, including some in rather a novel format. Then, there is the unexpected but perfect ending.

Line is a powerful debut, with some clever touches and incisive writing that marks a super new voice in Irish literature. I shall look forward to what Niall Bourke writes next.

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Annabel is a co-founder and editor of Shiny, and like Willard likes to be in a queue that moves!

Niall Bourke, Line (Tramp Press, 2021) 978-1916291423, 184 pp., paperback original.

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  1. Thanks so much for the blog tour support x

    1. Loved this book. Still thinking about it and thinking of other influences which I didn’t mention in my review. 1984 was too obvious, but there’s an echo of Heart of Darkness too!

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