Things We Didn’t See Coming

Author: Steven AmsterdamPublisher: Harvill Secker

Steven Amsterdam’s debut novel narrates the post-apocalyptic life of a relentless young man throughout his 30 years of despair, search for love, and survival. Each chapter unfolds chronologically, but with several year gaps, and therefore this novel allows itself to be read as an anthology of short stories – a strong reminder that Steven Amsterdam began his career as a short story writer.

Chapter One is set on the eve of the millennium and depicts our main character as a boy who is trying to win his dad’s approval while ignoring his estranged mum. Compared to the chapters that follow, it is a gentle introduction to the violence and destruction ahead.

As a reader you certainly expect some progress in narrative, but Amsterdam changes his style and characters so frequently that it is quite unsettling. Like a CD player on shuffle, Amsterdam’s writing is speculative and impulsive in an attempt to depict ‘right and wrong’ in a dystopian world.

I wonder what Amsterdam wanted to achieve by structuring his first novel as a set of individual stories – is he using unreliable plot-lines to emphasise an uncertain future after an apocalypse? Are we to take its title so literally?

Things We Didn’t See Coming touches on the basics of raw human nature: ethnic cleansing and survival of the fittest, polygamous relationships, religious sects and political dictatorship – it’s all in there and it’s sometimes rather saucy. Some plot-lines are slightly bizarre and show that Amsterdam has a good sense of humour, too.

Amsterdam’s novel is original and versatile, but its structure is partly its pitfall. Individually set story-lines are an exciting prospect, yet these discontinued narratives are not always followed up and therefore don’t reach its full potential. Yet, Steven Amsterdam is undeniably successful in creating a plethora of original and unexpected events that I certainly could not have seen coming.

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