Emma Lee reviews ‘Incunabulum’ by Carol McKay

Reviewed ByEmma Lee
Incunabulum’ by Carol McKay

‘Incunabulum’ Carol McKay

Pot Hole Press

ISBN (Print) 987-1-910033-08-1

ISBN (Kindle) 978-1-910033-09-8

ISBN (ePub) 978-1-910033-10-4

The title is clever: in the novel the main character rescues an incunabulum from the library, where she was librarian, and is also creating a new incunabulum-of-sorts by making a record of contemporary events for posterity. Alice MacAuley, fifty-something, wakes feeling exhausted and suffering flu-like symptoms. The introduction doesn’t name the virus but suggests both SARS and Covid-19 as likely suspects. After a few days of waking, sleeping, waking and sleeping, she eventually feels well enough to get up. The block of flats she lives in is strangely quiet. She notices the neighbour’s car left in the middle of the street and goes to investigate but regrets going so when she find the neighbour’s daughter’s body. After knocking on a few doors and not getting an answer, Alice begins to realise that she is the survivor of a pandemic. She packs a rucksack and sets out, thinking that she’ll find more survivors in the town’s centre. 

After some false starts, a group of them gather. Sara is in her early twenties but learning-disabled. Peej, short for Peter Jaimeson, and his daughter’s boyfriend known as Wide Boy, Lee-Ann, a young woman nicknamed Junkie, and Eric who had holed up above the local pub. They know a couple of bikers have also survived but they are hostile to non-bikers. The group make a base in the local bowls club’s building until the bikers throw a Molotov cocktail through the windows. Alice suggests they move to the library. Over the next few weeks the group expand to include Bill and Grace, an elderly couple, a thirty-something couple nicknamed Basher and Limpet with two children, Saleema and Salaam, another teenager and middle-aged man duo, Brain and Gaffer, who figure out how to make a generator. Alice feels comfortable in the library and their lives settle into a routine until the bikers, now a group rather than just a couple, come back and break-in through a basement window.

The group increase security measures and work out a night watch rota. Meanwhile they scout out an alternative base. Basher thinks a farm on the outskirts where they can grow food because it’s getting harder to find food in the supermarkets which isn’t out of date. The problem is that the farm house would make them sitting ducks if the bikers show up again. Peej remembers there’s a former mine shaft. Theoretically it’s suitable accommodation space but has the weakness that there’s only one entrance. 

While the group make the mine shaft habitable, Alice takes the incunabulum from the library, which gives the group the idea of making her with her background as librarian and historian, the record-keeper. She’s also hiding two secrets, a photo she’s kept hidden from the others in the group and a mild deformity. Both become significant from around two-thirds into the novel.

After the next attack from the bikers, the group decide it’s time to move. The routines they established at the library are altered to accommodate their new location. While they set about planting and establishing a herd of sheep, they still have access to the library and local shopping malls. Their group expand to include identical twins Robyn and Robina, and an itinerant named Chis, who updates them on other activity in the area. Alice notices Sara’s been putting on weight but doesn’t figure out why. Lee-Ann announces a pregnancy, she knows, but won’t tell who the father is.

Alice, thinking Peej is interested in her, tells him about her secret. A baby she had to give up. A library manager took advantage of her when she was only sixteen. When she became pregnant, he transferred her to another library. Her parents took her to her aunt’s where she had the baby and was forced to leave her daughter with her aunt. She and Peej go on a trip to her aunt’s former house to see if they can find anything out. The daughter, it seems, ran away to the city so the trail goes cold.

At this point in the story, the group are shocked by several revelations and the bikers ramp up their war. Alice despairs, that instead of managing to reach a peace with them, they are simply fighting. But she also sees hope. The group are mixed with the older adults taking charge but also children growing up under their protection. That Limpet and Lee-Ann are capable of pregnancy to start a new generation, and the farm becoming established to give them food. However, can the group win despite the bikers’ efforts to stop them and will Alice find her long-lost daughter?

‘Incunabulum’ reads like a novel even though it’s set up to be a journaled record of life after the mysterious virus that wiped out most of humanity. The characters start out as being ill-equipped in survival skills, but as the story grows, they learn to play to each other’s strengths and adapt to a dramatically different world. So far, a typical dystopian novel. 

What makes ‘Incunabulum’ different is Alice’s secrets and her search for her long-lost daughter. The daughter she didn’t seek out in the pre-viral world in deference to her mother who was still alive then. But faced with a struggle to survive in a post-viral world, Alice seeks the daughter she’s never stopped thinking about. This particular strand of the story though takes a while to surface. Initially, readers see Alice pack the photo, occasionally she takes it out to look at while the readers are left guessing what the photo is. Eventually the photo is revealed, but the search for the daughter feels out of keeping with the feel of the rest of the novel which is the group keeping together and making a new life. The predictable climax, the bikers invading the old mine shaft and the group’s escape, relies on two convenient coincidences, a woman going into labour and a discovery, which detract from the drama and undermine the credibility of this section of story. Although the woman is heavily pregnant, due any day and the stress of the marauding bikers could trigger labour, it feels too convenient. Similarly the final stages of labour taking place right where an important discovery is made adds to the sense of this being a plot device rather than credible event.

Emma Lee

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