Angst-ridden millennials escape Earth in this wry, melancholy fable that addresses the real pain of loneliness
“Winter, pub, London, work.” In the opening pages of Luiza Sauma’s second novel, Iris Cohen reflects on the choice she made to abandon Earth and its soulless grind for life in another solar system. We find her on “a beautiful new planet” whose marketing material promised “a meaningful new life; are you ready?” Eight years on, Iris wonders whether she had been.
Rio-born, London-raised Luiza Sauma published her debut in 2017 to justified acclaim. Flesh and Bone and Water looked at young love across the social and ethnic divides in 1980s Brazil, delving into layers of history, both national and personal. Sauma’s new novel, by contrast, is set in the near future, in a world parallel to our own, where charismatic CEO and modern-day pied piper Norman Best offered a select few millennials an escape from their angst-ridden ruts via a wormhole in the Pacific Ocean. Their destination? A salmon-pink planet called Nyx, and a renewed sense of purpose as an intergalactic farmer-pioneer. The catch? The ticket was strictly one way.
Iris, though, had many good reasons to take this chance. Her Earth weekdays were spent in endless strategy meetings and leadership courses, and her week nights in the pub, drinking too much on an empty stomach, then eating chips on the bus back to her east London flat. Sauma’s take on graduate working life is bleak, but wonderfully dry. Iris worked for “Freedom & Co, a creative agency with outposts in New York and Amsterdam”, where colleagues made overearnest pronouncements on not using hashtags for a change, “just so that brands appear a bit more human”. Told to lean in, be more ambitious, more fist-on-the-table, Iris would bite her lip. “I don’t want to be a leader. Is that allowed?”
On Nyx, she lives a life free of such status games – and of salaries and taxes, too. They have “no wars, no conflict, no climate change”, and they grow what they eat, becoming leaner as a result: “worthier. Buddha-like. A vegan!” Iris is delighted: “She could never be a vegan on Earth.” Her fellow Nyxians are a rootless generation of Ravs and Abbys, Stellas and Yukos, whose shifting, transnational accents mirror the shifting, transnational lifestyles they led before. They bond over shared cynicism but enjoy their new roles and relationships, rooted in collective work, even if the enforced proximity often requires Iris to intone “there is good in everyone, there is good in everyone”; and even if they all quickly, inevitably, yearn for the promised new recruits from Earth.On Nyx, life is free of status games – and of salaries and taxes, too. They have no wars, no conflict, no climate change
There is pain in this novel too, real and raw – and here it finds its heart. Iris’s father took his own life when she was a child, and haunts her own recurring suicidal thoughts. Most of her pain, though, arises from a profound loneliness, which Sauma presents as endemic, unavoidable, impinging on every relationship, even the closest: “Eleanor wasn’t one of those mothers who test their children’s patience with constant phone calls. Instead, she tested Iris’s love by rarely getting in touch.”
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