This is actually the first Will Carver novel I’ve read and it’s a brilliant book. But as other reviewers have observed this is a very hard book to review. It’s literature/crime fiction/dystopian observation all rolled into one. Added to that is the fact that there is no central character as such. Rather, there are a number of recurring characters who are dotted throughout the narrative whom gradually taken on greater significance.
A lot of people die in this book, and while the blood and guts are not piled on too high, there are some gruesome descriptions of how they die. Most surprisingly, all these people’s deaths come at their own hands. For this book is about a suicide cult (I should be careful with the C-word as will be explained) calling themselves the “People of Choice”.
The People of Choice are a seemingly spontaneous cult. Ordinary people, who for reasons known only to themselves, congregate in public places with other members, all of whom have never met until that day, and throw themselves off buildings. Needless to say, this causes widespread public concern, media panic, and the resultant pressure on the police, who have no idea how to stop it.
As mentioned, this book is not written in a conventional way. Another author might have written this is a straightforward narrative, perhaps following a detective trying to solve this spate of suicides. But Nothing Important Happened Today is instead written from the perspective of lots of people. Most chapters are written in the third person and from the perspective of those planning on killing themselves, though these chapters are distant from their subjects and so we never really get an understanding of what they’re thinking. Other chapters are told from the perspective of the uncle of one of the victims, and from that of a police officer, and these are closer to their subjects. Running through the book, and interspersing the character chapters, is text from some kind of manual dictating how to found a cult, what is wrong with that word – the author postulates that it is often the reaction of outsiders, those who label something a cult, that cause tragic results – and serial murder. The significance of this is only realised at the end.
One reason this book is so difficult to review is that to explain why it is so good is to risk spoilers. So I will try to be circumspect with my final thoughts. That said, if you’re a reader who’s really concerned with spoilers, perhaps it’s best to stop reading at this paragraph. If you are reading this review, and do decide to stop reading it here, just take it from me that this is a brilliant book, extremely original and one that will stay with me for a very long time. I can’t recommend it enough.
OK, so what I really liked about this book is how it considered free will, control, compulsion, and influence. I studied criminology as the master’s level at the LSE and this stuff is discussed all the time. For example, believe it or not, there are studies that show the smell of fresh bread makes people more peaceable and less prone to violence. There have been discussions of piping the smell of baked bread into city centres, I kid you not (as far as I know it’s never been tried). Furthermore, there’s serious evidence that derelict buildings, broken windows, and graffiti, lead people to have less respect for a neighbourhood and subconsciously take cues that anti-social behaviour is permitted. This has led to numerous initiatives, from city clean-ups, on the one hand, to zero-tolerance policing on the other.
All this is taken to the extreme in the Darren Brown TV programmes, where the mentalist takes an unwitting volunteer and subjects them to psychological cues to see if they can be made to do something. And this, to me at least, is at heart what Nothing Important Happened Today is all about: how much free will we actually have, can we be compelled to do something catastrophic against our better interests and under what circumstances.
This is a deeply disturbing novel and the author has clearly done his research. It’s also not for the faint-hearted, for not only does the author tackle difficult subjects (suicide, our fragile free will) but he also doesn’t let wider society off the hook either. Throughout, he also shows how, while less malign than whatever is causing people to kill themselves, social media and celebrity culture are also working against our psychological well being.
A brilliant and chilling piece of fiction, this is an author who I will be sure to read more of.
James Pierson 5/5
Nothing Important Happened Today by Will Carver
Orenda Books 9781912374830 pbk Nov 2019