When I first received the press release for Dave Hutchinson's Europe in Autumn, I was immediately intrigued by the premise of the novel. Although I had never heard of the author, I've spent the last few years traveling around the Balkans and the rest of Eastern Europe, and I also spent time in all three Baltic states. So this book really spoke to me. I asked the folks at Solaris to send me a hard copy and I promised myself to read it when I returned from Southeast Asia.
I don't usually read digital editions of books on my laptop because it makes my eyes bleed. But when I returned to Phnom Penh for one last night to catch a flight back to Hong Kong on the following day, I found myself in a bind. I was halfway through James Clavell's Tai-Pan and not particularly looking forward to my 17-hour transit back to Canada. And since I wasn't sure whether or not I'd be able to plug in my laptop during my flight from Hong Kong to Toronto, I wanted to keep Tai-Pan to read on the plane. With a few hours to kill before catching a cab to the airport after checking out in Phnom Penh, I made my way to a nearby Costa Coffee (air conditioning isn't that widespread in Vietnam and Cambodia, but most foreign coffee shops have it) and decided to start Europe in Autumn and see how it went. Well, let me tell you that it was a fun ride!
Here's the blurb:
Rudi is a cook in a Kraków restaurant, but when his boss asks Rudi to help a cousin escape from the country he’s trapped in, a new career – part spy, part people-smuggler – begins. Following multiple economic crises and a devastating flu pandemic, Europe has fractured into countless tiny nations, duchies, polities and republics. Recruited by the shadowy organisation Les Coureurs des Bois, Rudi is schooled in espionage, but when a training mission to The Line, a sovereign nation consisting of a trans-Europe railway line, goes wrong, he is arrested and beaten, and Coureur Central must attempt a rescue. With so many nations to work in, and identities to assume, Rudi is kept busy travelling across Europe. But when he is sent to smuggle someone out of Berlin and finds a severed head inside a locker instead, a conspiracy begins to wind itself around him. With kidnapping, double-crosses and a map that constantly re-draws itself, Europe in Autumn is a science fiction thriller like no other.
In terms of worldbuilding, the dystopian world of a fragmented Europe is not necessarily something new. After economic collapse and a catastrophic flu pandemic that left millions dead in its wake, the EU, already under a lot of strain, began to unravel. Which led to the creation of a variety of independent or semi-independent territories, city-states, and countries. This splintered European continent serves as the backdrop for Hutchinson's tale. Such a state of affairs leaves the door open for a lot of originality, and the author really took the ball and ran with it. Dave Hutchinson is a self-proclaimed European enthusiast and it shows. There are a lot of tidbits spread out through the narrative that will be appreciated by people who have traveled to many of those countries/regions. Those little details and nuances were by far my favorite aspect of this novel. Fear not, though, for it is nonetheless accessible to readers who have never visited Eastern Europe.
The structure of the book is quite unusual and erratic. Nothing makes much sense from the beginning all the way to the very end, when everything finally comes to together. I am aware that some readers might find that off-putting. Like the main protagonist, Rudi, the reader is taken on a wild ride and there is little more they can do but to buckle up and go for it. Still, for all of its chaotic erraticness, there is never a dull moment in Europe in Autumn. The fragmented Europe premise is easy enough to follow. But like poor Rudi, revelations are few and far between, and one can only hope that this book won't end in a train wreck.
Although at no point in the first 300 pages or so does one clearly understand what Europe in Autumn is supposed to be about, the crisp pace of the novel and its unexpected twists and turns keep everything fresh. At some point, I believe that in order to fully enjoy this work, you must put your faith in Dave Hutchinson and trust that he knows what he's doing and that, somehow, it will all make sense before the end. That, depending on what kind of reader you are, might just make or break this book for you. There is a definite episodic style to his writing, and in every few chapters we are introduced to yet more characters in a brand new setting. As a matter of course, where these new storylines might fit in the greater scheme of things remains a mystery.
Rudi, more or less as clueless as the rest of us, will see his life turn into a bewildering roller coaster ride. He's a cynical guy with a witty outlook on life. Plus, Rudi is not always the sharpest tool in the shed. And as such, his POV makes for a fun-filled ride. With no plotlines making any kind of sense until very late in the book, this flawed protagonist anchors everything together and to a certain extent prevents Europe in Autumn from becoming the aforementioned train wreck.
Throughout this madness, the author deserves credit for managing to keep us in the dark for the better part of the novel. Unexpectedly, Hutchinson brings that panoply of disparate threads together using a classic science fiction trope (which I won't disclose, as it would kill the entire tale). And then, everything does make sense and, looking back, you realize that all the clues were there in plain sight. But the story was just too outrageous for us to connect the dots. My fear at that point was that the remaining twenty-something pages left would prove unequal to the task of closing the show with aplomb. And my fear did materialize, as the ending was in truth a new beginning. . .
Dave Hutchinson's Europe in Autumn is a challenging novel to read. Not because it's hard to get into or very demanding, but because it's the kind of work that makes it hard for readers to maintain their focus on a story arc that's all over the place. But stick with it and you'll realize that it's an original, intelligent, and very entertaining read. Hopefully there will be a sequel. . .