Sweet Fruit, Sour Land is the debut work by Rebecca Ley, a graduate of the creative writing Master’s at City University – but more notably than this it has won this year’s Guardian Not the Booker Prize. Set in a dystopian and famine-hit London, it tells the story of two women – Mathilde, who has immigrated from an equally barren France and finds herself in higher circles after her grandmother makes a dress for the hostess of one of its many parties, and Jaminder, whom Mathilde meets at one of these parties. The novel tells how both women are drawn into this world and Mathilde is taken in by George, a corrupt government minister who is able to procure extra food for her and her grandmother and keep her from having to conceive. Likewise Mathilde and Jaminder form an intense bond, but the tide seems to be against them.
In the wake of the current political climate, Ley’s powerful first novel couldn’t be timelier. In some ways the London she describes is not totally dissimilar to the one in the present day, and could perhaps be seen as a cautionary tale for the Brexit generation. Not only is there a shortage of food, but also of both medicine and material goods. The prime minister, referred to only by Mrs P, achieves nothing but repeatedly churns out empty slogans full of falsehoods, and George’s behaviour throughout demonstrates that women are very much considered beneath men in this world. The narrative alternates between the points of view of both Mathilde and Jaminder, the former talking about the past in London and the latter from the present where the two have fled to Scotland and are raising a son together. These alternating points of view are handled well, which is commendable.
Although it does have some plot holes, this novel still manages to be quite jarring in how current and familiar its narrative is.
Sweet Fruit, Sour Land is out now, published by Sandstone Press