First published in 1967, Sven Holm’s speculative dystopian novella, Termush, is the latest release in the Faber Editions series, an expertly-curated selection of rediscovered gems dedicated to showcasing radical literary voices from around the world. It’s the third book I’ve read from this imprint, and I would thoroughly recommend all three: Mrs Caliban, a subversive feminist fable by the American writer Rachel Ingalls; Maud Martha, an exquisitely-crafted portrait of a young black American woman by the poet Gwendolyn Brooks; and now the brilliant Termush, a deeply unnerving slice of post-apocalyptic dystopia that still feels wildly relevant today.
The novella’s premise is a fascinating one. A nuclear apocalypse has decimated the country (and possibly the whole world), wiping out large swathes of the population. Nevertheless, an elite coastal hotel named Termush remains untouched by the disaster, complete with trained staff, an armed security team, radiation shelters, access to clean water, food and other luxury provisions. Medical support is also on hand, courtesy of two doctors and a supply of medicines. Moreover, there is access to a luxurious yacht, should the hotel guests and staff need to flee from the resort at some point.
Holed up at Termush are several wealthy guests, privileged individuals who paid for their reservations in advance – an insurance policy, so to speak, in case of a global catastrophe. Holm’s novella focuses on the aftermath of the apocalypse, reporting what happens within the Termush community once it is deemed ‘safe’ for the survivors to emerge from the resort’s radiation shelters, ready to occupy their tastefully decorated rooms. This account is relayed by an unnamed narrator in a cool, self-controlled style, a technique that gives the story a timeless, universal feel – almost as if it could be happening virtually anywhere in the world at any time in the last 80 years.
As the guests remain cocooned in the relative safety of the hotel, toxic dust swirls around the elaborate sculpture park in the resort’s gardens. Security men patrol the site, removing dead birds and other unpleasant sights from the guests’ field of vision while guarding the complex against outsiders, who increase in number and desperation as the story unfolds.
Holm seems particularly interested in the psychological impact of disasters; for instance, what happens to our moral codes, guiding values and behaviours towards others when familiar societal structures are destabilised or destroyed. Moreover, he illustrates quite brilliantly how specific societal constructs are designed to favour the privileged and the wealthy, often to the detriment of humanity as a whole – something that chimes all too horribly with many of our current government’s policies, from the balance of taxes across various social groups to the treatment of migrants and asylum seekers.
As the story unfolds, the hotel guests must grapple with various moral dilemmas, such as what to do with other injured survivors who turn up seeking food, medical treatment and shelter. Should they show compassion and allow these individuals to be admitted to the complex, even though they haven’t paid for the privilege, or should they turn them away? And if new members are allowed to join the group, will there be enough food and medicine to go around? Could they pose any risks to the existing guests, either medically (through potential contamination), physically (from their presence within the group) or emotionally (from any psychological impact)?
We expected to find a world completely annihilated. This was what we insured ourselves against when we enrolled at Termush.
No one thought about protecting himself against the survivors or their demands on us. We paid money to go on living in the same way that one once paid health insurance; we bought the commodity called survival, and according to all existing contracts no one has the right to take it from us or make demands upon it. (p. 39)
Soon, the hotel management starts withholding certain developments from the guests for fear of unsettling them. New arrivals are ushered in under cover and kept apart from the existing guests; reports of the dead are suppressed; and news of the hotel’s reconnaissance team is patchy at best. All of this adds to the narrator’s deep unease as he grapples with the changing shape of his world – a world that seems to be turning in on itself as the days drift by.
If the hotel management see themselves as a protective shield between the guests and the outside world, whenever that world is revealed as menacing, they are acting in direct contradiction of their terms of reference. To be a guarantee of help in a situation which may well turn out to be total chaos, according to the unhelpful wording of the brochure, does not mean that to conceal the true facts becomes a duty. (p. 16)
Holm excels in creating a sense of creeping dread, combining a tantalising blend of the frighteningly real and the enigmatically surreal. The narrator’s perceptive observations on developments at Termush are intertwined with a series of visions – haunting, dreamlike images that seem deeply unsettling, like harbingers from the future foreshadowing tragic events.
We see the turtle lay eggs and burrow into the earth, where it dies of thirst; birds fall out of their nests without using their wings; the foal licks stones while the mare’s udder is bursting with milk; the goat flays its kid and tries to chew its flesh; the bee turns its sting on itself; the corn starts to grow downwards and the roots of the trees rise up to search for water from the air. (p. 104)
It’s something that makes Holm’s novella seem terrifyingly prescient, chiming strongly with 21st-century concerns surrounding climate change, global pandemics, biological weapons and other viable threats to our current existence.
Moreover, these feelings of tension and destabilisation are accentuated by the relentless march of fear. As the days slip by, various events affect the psychological well-being of the group, especially its most vulnerable members. For example, when the narrator learns that one of the guests has fled the complex, he reflects on the reasons behind this escape, clearly identifying a broader undercurrent of anxiety.
Without talking about it, perhaps without being conscious of it, he reacted against this enclave, this closed compartment cut off from the world. He had not wished to or had not been in a position to resume the interrupted game of make-believe that nothing had happened. He felt cramped by the restrictions of the place, the rhythm of the day, the petty bickering at the meetings and the unacknowledged fear which rears its head when we are down in the shelters, and which, like the nakedness, we conceal. (p. 54)
It would be unfair of me to reveal how the story plays out, but suffice it to say that the future looks bleak. While the narrator and the hotel’s chief medic show more humanity to the injured wanderers than other members of the group, thoughts of self-protection and preservation are rife, leading to acts of selfishness, differentiation/segregation, and a palpable fear of outsiders.
The novella comes with an excellent introduction by the critically-acclaimed science-fiction writer Jeff VanderMeer, who describes Termush as a bridge between the ‘return-to-normalcy’ of ‘disaster cosies’ by writers such as John Wyndham and the ‘extravagant, mind-bending dystopias of J. G. Ballard’ – an analysis that feels suitably astute.
In summary, then, Termush is a wildly prescient piece of speculative fiction, a deeply unsettling exploration of societal breakdown in the wake of a catastrophe. A fascinating addition to the Faber Editions list – an imprint that continues to explore a wide variety of styles, voices and genres to genuinely thrilling effect.
(My thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a review copy.)
A well-written and intriguing review of Sven Holm’s dystopian novella, Termush. The premise of a luxurious hotel surviving a nuclear apocalypse is fascinating, and Holm’s exploration of the psychological impact of disasters and societal breakdown is very relevant today. The review captures the creeping dread and tension of the story and describes the enigmatic surrealism used to foreshadow tragic events. Overall, a highly recommended addition to the Faber Editions list.
Thanks! Yes, that’s it in a nutshell. Holm conveys that sense of creeping dread so well, and the vivid, hallucinatory imagery really adds to the feeling of unease. I’d love to see this being adapted for the screen!
This sounds good. Though what struck me forcefully while reading this review was the relative absence of novels dealing with, essentially, this situation but with the focus on the hotel staff, or equivalent. Surely some of them have families in the outside world, surely some of them were doing the job between semesters at college to make a little money and never thought the apocalypse would actually *happen*… I’d love to read a story that brought out the pain and complexity of those situations.
Yes, good point. There’s very little focus on the hotel staff here, although the narrator does have quite a few interactions with the facility’s doctor (who is technically on the staff). That’s the closest we get on insights into what’s going on with the hotel workers, how they’re coping etc.
A slight aside here, but a couple of films spring to mind around the points you’ve raised, both worth catching if you haven’t seen them already. Firstly, Ruben Ostland’s Triangle of Sadness, which is set on a luxury cruise ship that runs into trouble. The ship’s Toilet Manager comes into her own in the third act when a small group of passengers and crew wash up on a seemingly uninhabited island, partly because she’s the only one with the survival skills to cope. Subtlety is not this film’s register, but it’s sharp and satirical with some utterly outrageous scenes.
The other one I’d strongly recommend is The Chambermaid by Lila Aviles. An excellent, well-observed film, very much about the emotional toll on low-wage workers in this kind of high-class environment. There’s a great review of it here (by Peter Bradshaw at The Guardian).
These both sound great! My film knowledge is very poor, so thank you for bringing these to my attention.
Very welcome! Triangle of Sadness is a Marmite film, so you’ll either love it or hate it. I saw it in a packed screening at last year’s London Film Festival, and pretty much everyone seemed to be into it. But streaming it at home might be a very difference experience! The Chambermaid, on the other hand, is much more subtle, like a Charco Press novella in translation. An excellent film that deserves to be better known.
Interestingly, I recently read C Pam Zhang’s The Land of Milk and Honey (due out in September) which has a quite similar premise. I tend to avoid dystopian fiction but was struck by the originality of the idea which only goes to show…
Thanks, Susan. That’s interesting to hear. I read this partly because it’s in the Faber Editions series (which seems to be throwing up some genuinely groundbreaking books) and partly for the premise, which really appealed. It’s well worth checking out if you like the idea…
Excellent Jacqui. I will definitely keep an eye out for this one, sounds so good
You’d like this, Cathy. I feel sure of it.
Great review, Jacqui. It sounds like an interesting book though I must admit I am a bit weary of the dystopian novel as they often feel very similar. I think the last one I read was H(A)PPY by Nicola Barker and that was a more refreshing approach, but otherwise the whole genre feels rather tired to me.
The story itself makes me think of the TV show/movie Snowpiercer. A slightly different premise but lots about it is very similar.
Thanks, Bii. I hear what you’re saying about the genre and how many of these narratives are almost certainly riffing on similar themes. For starters, you’re far more widely read in sci-fi and dystopia than I am, so you’re very well-placed when it comes to analysing this area!
Nevertheless, one of the things that interested me about this novella was the original date of publication – 1967 – not that long after the Cuban Missile Crisis of ’62. Sven Holm hailed from Denmark, but even so, I wondered if the ongoing Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union might have influenced his thinking at the time. It’s very slim – so if like me you rarely dip your toes in this genre, it’s a quick, accessible read that still chimes with some of the concerns we face today…
I didn’t realise it was written so long ago. I think I just have dystopia – or rather post apocalyptic novel – fatigue, it is a common and overdone theme in the sci-fi genre, I think because it is considered to be a more accessible subject matter and perhaps more relevant given everything that is going on these days. I think because the themes it covers – societal breakdown, moral breakdown, survivalism – are kind of universal it makes it both accessible and repetitive. Also attractive to write about. I suspect this novel was very fresh at the time it was written, and is no doubt done very well and has an interesting angle. It is the genre, I think, which has become quite saturated.
Yes, all great points. I think you’re right in saying that the genre feels quite crowded now, especially as the core themes are essentially the same. There are only a limited number of ways of spinning these elements before the genre starts to feel very tired, and we’re probably well beyond that point by now. Maybe the rapidly changing AI landscape will offer fresh dystopian scenarios for writers to explore? Who knows where that technology could take us in the future, especially if it’s exploited in ways that turn on humanity…
Still, as you say, Termush probably felt quite radical back in the sixties…and with the Cold War uppermost in people’s minds, it must have seemed frighteningly possible as a doomsday scenario. A fascinating rediscovery, I think.
I’ve not read much dystopian fiction but this does sound excellent and really powerful. The claustrophobia and increasing pressure seem very well evoked.
I’m not a big reader of this type of fiction either, but I thought this was very effective, especially for a novella written in the 1960s.
Brilliant review, Jacqui, and this does indeed sound like a powerful and prescient reprint. Interestingly, as I was reading your review I couldn’t help but be reminded of The Plague by Camus – set in a different place and time, of course, but still has that need for survival, the suspicion of others, the collapse of the normal moral compass. It’s a similar kind of thing but in a less dramatic, dystopian setting. Faber really are rediscovering some gems!
They really are! That’s a fascinating comparison with the Camus, which I recall seeing quite a lot during the early stages of the COVID pandemic. (A friend read it with her book group, and various other readers were picking it up from the shop.)
I’d be interested to hear what you think of Termush at some point, should you decide to read it. For instance, I’ve been wondering whether there are any resonances with Eastern European sci-fi from this era, especially with the Cold War rumbling away in the background…
Fascinating review. I have not read a lot of dystopian fiction so this sounds very relevant for our times given the growing threat of nuclear war.
I think it also chimes with some recent films and TV series on the luxurious lifestyles of the privileged elite e.g. Ruben Ostlund’s Palme d’Or winner Triangle of Sadness and Rian Johnson’s The Glass Onion (the follow-up to Knives Out). There’s also HBO’s The White Lotus, which I haven’t seen yet but would like to in the future…
You will love The White Lotus I’m not much of a television fan but loved both series of this. Lifestyles of the horrid rich but they generally get what they deserve.
It does sound very good! I don’t have Sky, but it’s also streaming on Now TV in the UK, so I may have to dip in for a month and binge it. There’s something horribly compelling about these rich-people-behaving-badly dramas, like watching a car crash unfold before your eyes…
This sounds excellent. I don’t much care for dystopias, but I like the complexities of this one.
I think this is a dystopian novel for readers who don’t often read dystopia, if that makes sense – partly because it’s short and punchy. The themes are very recognisable too, which always helps!
I read this last month and enjoyed it. It’s quietly unsettling.
Yes, very! This Faber Editions series has thrown up some real gems over the past couple of years. I don’t know if you’ve tried any of the others in the series, but everything I’ve read so far has been excellent.
I hadn’t heard this until I saw it was being reprinted – I liked the sound of it and your review has convinced me. It did sound very like Ballard as I was reading!
Ballard came to mind as I was reading this too, he’s definitely in the same ballpark! A few years ago, my book group picked Ballard’s The Drowned World, a fascinating novel set in the wake of a catastrophic environmental disaster, published in 1962. It felt like a projection of our worst fears on global warming and climate change as large swathes of the world had been rendered uninhabitable…absolutely terrifying to contemplate.
This sounds excellent, I do enjoy dystopian fiction occasionally. The premise of this with people living in a luxurious hotel, away from the apocalyptic fall out beyond, is very tantalising.
I think it’s a good one if you just want to try something different. This Faber Editions series seems to be firing on all cylinders at the mo, which is so great to see!
I very much want to read this one. I love dystopias. I’ve read and enjoyed Mrs Caliban and They from this series – both excellent and different! I’ll probably get the whole set ere long I think!
You would appreciate this one, Annabel. I feel sure of it. Like you, I really enjoyed Mrs Caliban, and it’s great to see this how this imprint has developed since then!
Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal
Pingback: They by Kay Dick | JacquiWine's Journal
That sounds very modern, which is pretty horrific, isn’t it, nothing having changed in the time between its writing and now!
Yes, even though the context has shifted from a Cold War threat to one of climate change, the basic premise of the story still feels very relevant. (And one can never rule out the possibility of a nuclear apocalypse going forward…)
Pingback: Rediscovered literary gems – a few of my favourites from the shelves | JacquiWine's Journal