Climate change has been the focal point of environmental concerns with the threat of rising seas, flooding, droughts, and food shortages attributed to it. Apocalyptic outcomes are on the horizon, and so many speculative narratives in recent years have projected end-of-world scenarios tied to the calamity.
Sarah K. Jackson’s debut novel, Not Alone, finds a new refreshing environmental disaster to worry about: toxic plastic dust. We’ve all heard of microplastics, and Jackson expands on this fear even further with nanoparticles small enough to pass through cell walls. Katie narrates the story of her life after the cataclysmic event—a massive North Atlantic hurricane whipping up the tiny aerosolized plastics, landing on the shores of merry old England, and leaving mostly dead bodies in its wake.
Katie lives in isolation, sheltered in her flat with her son Harry, who has only known life since the storm. Katie and her onetime fiancé Jack were environmental do-gooders in their Before lives. She didn’t own a car and worked as an activist. They took eco-vacations. In the Before, as narrator Katie calls our near future, the world was beginning to suffer under climate change, but with only nominal efforts put into environmental considerations. In the present, Katie worries about plastic dust particles, toxic rainstorms, and encountering other people who might have survived. She doesn’t let Harry leave the flat at all, and their life five years after the storm is filled with daily suffering. Then Katie finds the note from Jack.
The day of the storm, Jack had been working at a medical clinic in London, and was separated from Katie. By coincidence, Jack comes looking for Katie at their flat during the brief period she has left it to search for her family. When she returns, impregnated by a rapist, the apartment has been ransacked by other survivors. She cleans up, packs away Jack’s things, and misses the note he left behind.
Five years later, a stranger by the name of Sim appears out of the rain trying to escape a pack of wild dogs. Through Katie’s eyes, he’s nothing but a threat, but there are degrees of ambiguity to how threatening he really is. He tells her of other survivors, especially in cities, and talks about getting a greenhouse working. Still, he regularly returns to the flat and frightens her. Luckily, she simultaneously finds the note Jack has left behind. He provided instructions on where he’s headed and how to start the car he’s thoughtfully left in the parking garage. For Katie, it’s an easy choice. She piles Harry and some supplies into the truck and heads north to Scotland in search of “daddy.”
The novel is slow to start. It’s not so much world building as it is character building. We see the intimate day-to-day of Katie and Harry’s survival. We learn a lot about who Katie is and her relationship to Jack and Harry before there is much momentum to the plot. This exposition does help explain her fears, both of the world and of the men she encounters. Once the plot gets moving, Katie and Harry are on a road trip through hell. The infrastructure is collapsing, the signs are rotted, and of course Katie has to use an old map rather than GPS.
Men are a constant threat. Harry, who has some limited world experience, thinks just about any living thing larger than an insect is a “nasty.” The nasties are especially threatening at night and in the dark. He is channeling all of Katie’s fears. Katie mistrusts everyone they meet, including a couple, Sue and Andy, who are kind and generous. Katie worries they are trying to steal Harry from her. She is clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress, both from the storm and from the assault, and their isolation has only made things worse.
At the heart of the book is a love story. Katie paints Jack in an ideal, the way in which she remembers him. Even in her memory, occasionally seen in flashbacks, he’s loving and perfect, a man who can do no wrong. He’s quite the contrast to the other men she meets, who are almost exclusively villains.
The plot grows more compelling once Katie and Harry leave the flat, with the pacing picking up considerably. Moving along the English countryside, Katie and Harry find dangerous men everywhere they turn. Rightly or wrongly, both worry Sim is tracking them from home. They cross paths with another pair of men raising a group of children in the Scottish countryside. We never learn details about this but Katie seems certain they have bad intentions.
This is not a kind world. Rain is deadly. Dust is deadlier. They are constantly on the brink of starvation and so much of humanity has died that Western civilization has largely collapsed. We know almost nothing about the world beyond the tiny island nation. Scotland, it seems, has departed the United Kingdom even before the storm as Katie must force her way through a border gate. And we never really know how any of the other parts of the world endured. North America was ravaged by the storm, and the toxic dust damages infrastructure, but otherwise Katie is unaware. In that sense, it’s quite a provincially British novel and may remind some readers how modern British culture sees their tiny island nation as having an oversized impact on the world. (Perhaps it’s easy to see it this way as an American.)
There are also moments where the narrative strays away from the literary toward the preachy. Far too late in the narrative we’re told, “They started to find plastic dust in rivers, soils and even the air—and also in the vast oceans, millions of pieces per square metre, all washed there like it was a great big watery garbage dump.” Sure, humanity did this to themselves, and maybe we should all change our ways before it’s too late. But in context it feels like a lecture rather than part of the story.
Not Alone can easily find a place in the growing body of environmental disaster literature. The toxicity of plastic dust is probably something we should worry about, although perhaps for now, a bit less than Katie does. The novel is filled with penetrating interiority. Katie is pained by her choices, and the shortcomings of the world she is raising her child in, and we can feel that emotion in the novel. In the end, hope is the driving force that pushes Katie towards her goals. We’re going to need that kind of hopeful grit if we’re to survive our own environmental catastrophe.
By Sarah K. Jackson
Published May 2, 2023
Ian MacAllen is the author of Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American, forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield in 2022. His writing has appeared in Chicago Review of Books, The Rumpus, The Offing, Electric Literature, Vol 1. Brooklyn, and elsewhere. He serves as the Deputy Editor of The Rumpus, holds an MA in English from Rutgers University, tweets @IanMacAllen and is online at IanMacAllen.com.