I volunteered for several years as a writing mentor with exiled writers in London through an organization called Freedom From Torture (formerly The Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture) and before that, when I had a job, I used to donate money every month through my salary.
The people I met through Freedom From Torture were resilient, courageous, grateful to have found sanctuary in England – and desperately sad to have left friends, family, home and possessions behind in their country of origin. As part of our work as mentors, the other volunteers and I helped them tell their stories in poetry and prose. Rather than try to retell those stories in a book of my own, I began to wonder what it would be like if I could no longer live in London and had to flee. What kind of reception would I get if I turned up in another place without money, and with little cultural understanding of the place where I was seeking sanctuary? What if I had led an insular, protected life and didn’t know enough about how the world worked to know who to trust?
I came up with a young married couple, Lucas and Angela, who are living in London after some unspecified political upheaval that has led to England being partitioned. An ignorant fear of everything from terrorism to pedophilia has led to schools being shut down and women kept inside the home for their own protection, unable to work. There is no communication with the outside world. There is no air travel. London is surrounded by a big fence. Men are constantly being arrested and taken away to prison, so it’s rare to see anyone older than about thirty-five, and uneducated young men are in positions of power.
In my country, there is increasing surveillance of citizens. New powers of search and detention have been introduced ‘for our own protection’ and these are open to abuse. Some people will argue that it doesn’t matter if large numbers of people are inconvenienced and their privacy invaded, or even that innocent people are arrested and questioned, if it means that just one child is saved. But what if that child was never in danger anyway? What if there is no need for that transaction and we are paying to save that hypothetical one child with the wrong coin?
All these thoughts were going through my head when I was writing the book. I am at the stage in my life when the country seems to be going to the dogs… and yet I know that that feeling is partly a symptom of growing old. Plenty of things are better than they were when I was a child. Some are a little bit worse. Mostly it’s different. Importantly, everything is cyclical, and each generation will rebel against the previous one. In free societies, things eventually right themselves. But in somewhere like Iran, for example, though I think that the political situation will change, it might take longer than one generation before women can choose whether or not to wear the veil again.
I probably sound very serious talking about all this, but The Miracle Inspector is a blackly comic book with some funny lines in it, and I have deliberately portrayed a society that is absurd. Though one of the characters is arrested and tortured, you never see what is happening to him. You don’t even get to imagine it. I wouldn’t want to read about something like that and don’t feel qualified to write about it. In my book, this character tries to escape what is happening to him by imagining a journey taken by another character that becomes increasingly surreal. Is she really on this journey or is the whole thing in his mind?
There is quite a bit of ambiguity in the book, particularly in the ending. I have been delighted to read differing (very positive) reviews of The Miracle Inspector in which some people think it turns out OK, and others think it ends badly. Though I have told you what was going through my mind when I wrote the book, I don’t necessarily want readers to think about those things or draw the same conclusions from what I have written. I’d like them to find something in the book that seems relevant to them. They might find comparisons with what has happened in Iran, they might see hints about what is happening in their own country, or they might celebrate the fact that they live in a free society and, though I have depicted a bleak, dystopian London, that is something that could never happen. Perhaps they will end up asking the questions that I started out with.
Helen Smith is a member of the Writers Guild of Great Britain and English PEN. She traveled the world when her daughter was small, doing all sorts of strange jobs to support them both – from cleaning motels to working as a magician’s assistant – before returning to live in London where she wrote her first novel which was published by Gollancz (part of the Hachette Group).
She is the author of bestselling cult novel Alison Wonderland. She writes novels, poetry, plays and screenplays and is the recipient of an Arts Council of England Award. She’s a long-term supporter of the Medical Foundation for the Victims of Torture and mentors members of an exiled writers group to help them tell their stories.
Her latest book is the dystopian thriller The Miracle Inspector.
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