Daylight Come (RR) by Diana McCaulay.
I like this book. Every book is different, of course, but this is a rare read that’s different-different as it looks to a dystopian future in a world a lot like but not quite our world, through the experience of a teen girl and her mother; and because it is an immersive climate change themed story that feels all too real, reads less like fantasy and more like horror. This was the wrong story to read on hot nights. Is sci-fi-fantasy-horror a thing? If not, well this is it, and what’s familiar about it to us (Caribbean readers) is what makes it different in the world of speculative fiction because it’s not often you get these stories from the point of view of tropical island dwellers like myself. Since we are on the frontlines of climate change, though not the major villains in the tale (those are the ones packing on boats to come re-colonize our islands in the story), our vulnerabilities are well known to us. Now, through this work of fiction by someone who knows the stakes – the Jamaican author is a veteran environmental activist – those stakes should be clearer to others less immediately (because we are all ultimately) vulnerable. The newsreels in recent years, of damage wreaked by hurricanes so powerful and persistent they had to jump from one naming system to another, should have already done the job (of raising the alarm) but it’s clear that reinforcements are needed – and here come the artists, again. Diana McCaulay’s Daylight Come is a conch blowing a warning…and entertaining while doing so.
The plot in a nutshell is that the island (not-Jamaica but not-not-Jamaica) and the world have become so superheated, going out during the day is a death sentence. So humans and the environment have had to become nocturnal. Dangers include feral creatures, starvation, and, of course, other people. There is the desperation for few resources, of course, but there is also the violent dictatorial tendencies that don’t need the excuse of a dying world to assert themselves. Living in a city that feels like a garrison, Sorrel (the main character who like others from her particular area tend to have flower names), does what Black people enslaved in Jamaica did back in plantation times, leading to the birth of maroon communities, she made a run for the mountains. In this world, adults over a certain age are liabilities, both physically (“No one liked old people; they ate, got sick, didn’t work and were burdens on the young”) and also as they are the targets of angry youth dealing with the fallout of a world they created (“Someone had to be blamed and it was the old people”). However, Sorrel will not abandon her mother (“She tried to separate her fate from her mother’s, but the thought made her want to wail”), even when she finds a community of girls who live by survival of the fittest and everything else be sacrificed. That’s only the beginning of Sorrel’s story and I don’t want to give away too much of the twists and turns that kept me turning pages – so I’ll say only, of course nothing ever was that easy, especially not in a world of diminishing resources, increasingly desperate people, and violence. All while entering puberty and all that comes with that (“Her body felt like a bell, struck again and again”). By the way, in that world as in this, only to an extreme degree in the fictional world, all that comes with that, if you’re a girl, can mean becoming prey.
“If you got a period, you were given to a Domin man. I saw those girls; they had nothing in their eyes.”
I’m going to instead share some pull quotes with some, hopefully only-mildly-spoilery context, out of order if that helps retain the mystique, and then return with some final thoughts.
“Me too,” Emrallie said. “I’d rather die than be captured.”
At this point, a tough decision must be made and Emrallie, Sorrel’s friend, proves time and again that she is as tough as this world has made her. But, I would add, as the story evolves, through her actions, cares for those she cares for more than she lets on, maybe more than she knows – “I’m going to bring down some rocks to block the path. I’m not going to leave you here.” A time before, she would have.
“You’d be surprised how well terror works to keep people from fighting back.”
There are some battles in this book and, at least, one uprising, on the eve of which we are reminded that the flipside of Emrallie willing to die fighting rather than living on her knees are the people who’ve been pummeled into accepting their fate. They are not cowards but they have been shown the cost of rebellion and, like some of the people enslaved before time, sometimes find that survival is the only choice available to them.
“After Colonel Drax came into that room, I learned that everything ends but what comes after an ending can be worse.”
“She half-wondered if a catfish was some form of feral, made by a feline and a piscine, but surely lungs could not become gills, or vice versa.”
You can tell McCaulay is having fun here. Her playhouse is environmental science and she gets to get creative re-imagining the environment from the point of view of a girl who knows so little of it – so much is new to her and like a child discovering the world she’s trying to make sense of it, and, as with the first time eating breadfruit scene, she’s eating it up. It’s a credit to McCaulay’s handling of sense impressions and pov that she made my mouth water for the breadfruit with river fish, when I don’t even like breadfruit.
“How many centuries would pass before humans would be able to survive on grass?”
Here, in keeping with what I said above, she’s considering adaptation and evolution.
“Dawn used to be hopeful,” she said. “Maybe you went to bed with a problem, maybe you had bad dreams but when you woke up, the light made you feel hopeful. I had my best sleep just before dawn. Now we’re on the run from the day.”
There is a real sense throughout of what has been lost. Imagine not being able to see sunrise or sunset, rainclouds or blue sky, trees blowing in the wind, mango’s true colour – the thing itself and all that it represents in life, and this is what McCaulay so poignantly alludes to; it has all been lost, and with it, hope. And one of the things the book leans in to is that subsistence and survival is not enough to sustain us. The story begins when Sorrel decides she wants more.
“Her lungs were bursting, her eyes open, but she could see nothing except the killing light above.”
As noted, the very environment – rain bombs to earthquakes to sandstorms to drying water sources to hurricanes to sunlight – is the danger and we feel its menace in a visceral way as Sorrel fights her way through it.
“Many girls never had periods now; they were too poorly nourished, too sedentary.”
We are living in a now where some are making the decision not to have children because of climate change concerns – why bring children into a world that will inevitably become inhabitable. Of course, survival being our most basic instinct, within that is a desire to perpetuate our species so that we don’t die out. We cling to life, against the odds. Even if in this case, the odds are not being able to reproduce ourselves at a sustainable rate and a reality so harsh, many wonder why bother. McCaulay in practical and eviscerating ways illustrates not just the ecological outcomes but the human and philosophical price we may have to pay for our callousness toward the environment.
“He asked me what my dreams were and listened to my answers.”
I don’t even remember who asked who here but isn’t that just a beautiful sentiment simply expressed?
“He wouldn’t let me breast feed Sorrel alone in the night, got up with me every time.”
Okay, I think this and the previous quote might be from the mini-love story of Bibi, Sorrel’s mom and her father earlier in the (I almost wrote pandemic), what, post-apocalyptic future (?). It was beautiful and sad, seeing the almost normalness of their life crumble as the world succumbed and he gave in to a kind of madness (reminiscent of Janie and Teacake in Their Eyes were watching God).
Those samples have hopefully stoked your interest in reading this book – it’s a good read, bleak af and somehow also a rollicking adventure. The world building is solid, the characters vibrant, the pacing varied enough to keep it interesting, and it has heart. The science underpinning it feels believable, though, now and again, I find myself wondering about the span (and quickness of the evolution) e.g. of the fish in the river; like, how long would hybridization take? Longer than a lifetime or two or three, right? The story sometimes made me feel hopeless – I mean I liked the little victories but big picture the world has gone to shit. But the most hopeless thing for me was probably us, how, like in Black Rain (season 2 being the rare zombie show I couldn’t get in to), it takes like two days of the world collapsing for us to ‘literally’ eat each other – as if despotic is our default setting. Maybe it is. But is there a future where we don’t give in to our worst impulses? Here’s the thing though, the book does provide some hope that we can work together, some of us anyway, but whether we can sustain it is to be determined. Yes, I see this book as part one of something – there is more story to be told.
And finally*spoiler alert* also main criticism*
The climax was anti-climatic for me – in part because the build up was so great and the stakes so high but also because it felt too easy, and that’s why I say there is more story to be told; there are still storms on the horizon so we may yet see a truly climatic end battle. In the next book. The thing is though, I would have preferred to see the big battle play out rather than being told what happened through dialogue. The set-up was there but it feels like the writer backed off of getting in to the thick of the action. Putting Sorrel in the thick of the action. I wonder why that choice was made. I think it weakened the emotional momentum of the story in the end. The quiet moments were well done and there was gravitas, but it feels like we jumped over the the main sequence of that final act.
The racial ambiguity is the other thing that threw me off. I assumed the characters were Black but then sometimes the hair of the characters as described made me uncertain. This actually came up in a book club discussion I participated in. I feel like this might have been deliberate, maybe designed to be inclusive – but I wish it had been more specific (as specific as it was about other character descriptors) to ground the characters in the reality and nuances of the world of the story (and the world it suggests).