Flora and Jim by BP Gregory

A review

In short, this book is brilliant. Go out and buy it now. But if you want to know more, then read on.

I enjoyed the last of Ms. Gregory’s books, ‘The Town’ and was eager to see where she would go with a story so innocuously titled as ‘Flora and Jim.’

The setting is a frozen, post-apocalyptic landscape similar to that found in the film, Extinction (2015.) There are also similar father-daughter relationship parallels. The other recent story I thought about in this respect was Netflix’s ‘Cargo’ albeit with a much different storyline (no zombies!)

I read the print version and was immediately intrigued by the little pictures at the top of each chapter consisting of numbered pieces of foil – perhaps sweet wrappers? I’m still puzzled by the non-sequential numbers printed on them, and I assume this is not a formatting mistake. Maybe the author wants us to scratch away at our heads long after we’ve finished the book?

The story features two fathers, the first being Jim. The other is called Alfred or ‘the other father’. Jim and Flora are chasing him. Oh, and Alfred has a son with him called ‘Fauna.’ So – Flora and Fauna., or flowers and animals. Are they related somehow? We never quite get to know, we simply understand that there is this all-consuming pursuit. It is revealed that Jim has retrieved Flora from Alfred’s company when Flora trails behind this escaping ‘other father’ and suffers a fit.

I identified with the description of Flora’s seizure as I have personal experience of this with my own father: the notion of the sky falling on the head, a traffic cone smell. Again, this all adds to the authenticity.

This ‘relentless pursuit’ aspect had a feel of  Roland Deschaine’s quest chasing the Man in Black (Stephen King’s ‘Dark Tower’ if you’re not familiar.) It’s all-consuming, and we see how Jim’s obsession is gradually eclipsed by that of Flora.

The child-father language during the course of the story is endearing. The author induces an understanding of the pains of fatherhood when he describes ‘… the anxiety that squeezed my chest ever since Flora’s arrival in the world.’ Or his constant fear of ‘how casually her tissue-paper existence might tear, by slip or inattention.’

We rapidly pick up how strange the future existence in this world must be compared to our own. It’s done on a drip-feed basis and I like how the author deftly avoids ‘info-dump.’ Here are just a few examples:

— Flora can’t remember the things that were a norm for children before the catastrophe. Abandoned play equipment in a residential area is left alone because she doesn’t understand the concept of apparatus designed for children to enjoy. Such is this miserable existence.

— The routine is paramount. Frozen days are spent searching for a new place to shelter from the unliveable night. And you don’t go out at night — it’s too cold. One of Jim’s previous ‘family’ did and barely survived. (Part of him didn’t  — ‘The night took up residence behind his face.’)

— If all the plants are gone, what is producing the oxygen? Later, Jim wonders this when he and Flora encounter a container park at a dock. He speculates whether the sea itself, the ‘cradle of living things’, could still harbour photosynthesising plants (seaweed, algae.) But all he sees is extinction. The speculation goes only partway to explaining the ‘science’ of this emerging new world. Another question is, how far in the future is this, that animals could have evolved so quickly into the fantastical beasts we encounter later in the book.

— The nature of the new fauna is wonderfully described in its full horror when Flora and Jim encounter a ‘tornado’ of migrating beasts on the ice surface of a bay. ‘… so terrifying it was funny; snapped that little cut-off switch (in their brains) for ‘too much’ right off.’

— Jim is well versed in survival craft. This is evidenced when a predator is known to be tracking them. It takes some well-used blankets and drapes to cover their tracks through the snow. Jim then backtracks carefully by putting his feet in his previous footprints then sprints off in another direction.

So, a strange world indeed. But well pencilled-out.

The aforementioned family forms a basis for flashbacks in Jim’s narrative. It appears to consist of a large group of aunts and uncles. The story spends time with each of these minor characters, describing each one as a person coping with the catastrophe that has occurred in their own way. This is artfully done in the space of a few sentences, and highlights another strength of the story — it is ultimately about people.

We learn about Jim’s eventual partner, Mai. How she was brought to the family by scouts in a grief stricken state. At this point, we don’t know what has become of her original family but we are given to understand that maybe she has been kidnapped by Jim’s. We learn that Jim’s ‘family’ weren’t his natural family and that he eventually escapes from them with Mai.

Another major strength of this book is the superb descriptions (particularly about how wretched the living is in this world) abound.  Here’s just a few of my favourites:

‘ … beard like spider’s legs appearing from a cave.’

‘ … it was like the lavish table of our ancestors was being devoured by ghosts in front of our eyes’ (referring to the culling of humans when the earth’s temperature dropped.)

‘My stomach a miserable shrivelled thing suckling on my spine.’ (Hunger is a constant companion in this world.)

There are more poetic phrases, such as, ‘the whole broken tooth structure ringing with hymns to a lost summer (summing up the appearance of the frozen landscape.)

The author has laboured over these sentences, word by word, carefully crafting them to place the reader in a desolate scene, and feel for these two vulnerable but strong characters.

As with books like Cormac McArthy’s ‘The Road’, you wonder what motivates these survivors to go on living. Life is just another day in which you don’t kill yourself. Or, in Flora and Jim’s words, ‘Life clings on in pockets and corners.’ Then again, we are reminded of the fleeing ‘other father.’

In caring for Flora Jim is constantly staving off depression: ‘Despite all my efforts, depression was a page stuck to my forehead.’

As the story unfolds, we see in Jim’s former partner, Mai, someone he dreads or at least wants to leave behind. Why?

Later, we learn why Mai and Jim had to leave the family – spoiler: they wanted a baby, and the family doesn’t allow babies. Is it even a real family? We suspect not. There are too many of them and are unlikely to be blood-related.

Is Mai a Ghost? Jim hears her fingers drag and click along the outside of a container while he is asleep. This could, of course, be cold-induced hallucination.

When Flora runs off, Jim turns from a suffering machine to an engine running on hate. Is she simply doing what he did with Mai — escaping from a claustrophobic situation?

Towards the end of the book, we start to wonder if Jim has lost all sense of emotion, save that of protecting Flora. But then we witness a scene where he has to kill one of the evolved beasts of this world. We see that murdering an animal leaves Jim feeling as if ‘every part of me wanted to be shed and burned.’ He is able to feel. But the question is now — can Flora?

I’ll not spoil the ending, save to say it will surprise you in a desolate sort of way. You will learn what happened to Mai, and the fate of both fathers.

This is a relatively short book which I had been anticipating for a long time. I can see now why there was an apparent delay in publication. The author has toiled over every aspect of the story to produce something that is enduring. This is one of the longest reviews I have ever written, and it is for many reasons. Partly, I’m still looking for answers to some of my questions. Additionally, I genuinely found myself dwelling on the scenes, invested as I was in the story.

If you read the book (and I hope you do), then I’d like to know if you find any of the answers yourself to the questions I have posed. B.P. Gregory has taken the time to craft an immersive tale that will persist in your imagination – and isn’t that the mark of all good literature?

Flora and Jim is available from a number of outlets including Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Smashwords and Itunes/Ibooks

Check out BP Gregory’s website at https://www.bpgregory.com/

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