“Don’t smile because it’s over. Cry because it happened.”
This book tore my heart out and made me like it.
Alistair Caradec is a demon who learned how to type. That’s the only way I can explain how he writes characters who are so thoroughly tormented inside and out. And I do mean inside and out. I received an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) of The Old Love and the New, a gay dystopian set in London, England, and I genuinely loved reading this story. I say this even while also admitting it was like living in one of my depressive episodes. Being in Sid’s mind was both draining and validating. I felt myself reaching for my own unhealthy coping mechanisms, fighting the urge to put down the book and go to sleep to relieve both myself and Sid from our torment. While it was a struggle at times to keep turning the pages, it was also a lesson to keep going. People need you. You need you. The only way out is through. I felt understood as I read Sid’s story and, for that, I applaud Alistair on his creation of such a relatable character.
In this world, the government rounded up all the cis gender women in London and Ireland twenty-five years ago. There hasn’t been a cis gender woman in London or Ireland since. People lost their mothers, their daughters, their sisters, their wives, their aunts, their grandmothers. What prompted the government to load them all up into buses and ship them to quarantine facilities? A highly contagious, lethal disease that only women could catch. But it’s strange, because in the beginning of the story, Sid seems to be frightened that he or Jamie could catch this illness… A plot hole or Sid’s psychosis?
Well, in any case, that’s the setup for the plot and setting. I want to talk a bit about Sid and Jamie (the two main characters) before I dive into a deep, spoiler-heavy review. From this point on, there will be a lot of spoilers. If you missed the title of this review and got this far, thinking this is the spoiler-free one, this is your last warning. Turn back now to avoid spoilers. Sid and Jamie are flatmates who have known each other since college. Sid was two years old and Jamie was four when the quarantine happened, so while Sid has no recollection of his mother, Jamie does have a few memories of his mom. Sid’s mother was Pakistani and we see how others have targeted Sid all his life, from elementary school to present, based on his ethnicity.
For example, in chapter one:
And then it’s my turn, and already they’re eyeing me up and down. ‘And where are you from?’ Look, I keep things quiet. I don’t mind much, it’s always been the deal. Jamie’s teeth, however, can be heard grinding all the way to Scotland.
I hand out the passport and the officer sniffs. ‘Manchester?’
‘You don’t sound like you’re from Manchester . . .’ He glances down at the name. ‘. . . Sidney.’
I’m not sure what answer he’s looking for, there, so I just pick one at random. ‘Thanks.’
I know nothing of my mum, only that she’s the reason kids bullied me in school. ‘It’s cos of your ma,’ Dad said. He said not to take offence.
And then, in chapter twenty-one:
He held out his hand for my passport and looked at the information at the same time as he asked for it.
‘Short for Siddhartha?’
‘Short for Sidney.’
‘Where are you from?’
‘No, I mean . . .’ He gestured at his own face, meaning mine.
I stared. ‘Manchester.’
Remember how I said Alistair Caradec was a demon who learned how to type? Well, instead of just giving poor ol’ Sid racism to deal with, he also decided that Sid would develop psychosis at the age of nineteen. Now Sid hears a voice all the time that tells him to hurt himself, tells him people hate him, tells him that everyone’s out to get him. Even when he obeys the voice, it turns on him and won’t be satisfied.
The voice screams in my ear, Say it, say it, say it, you coward, you know you’re a selfish wanker, you know what you want so say it.
‘I want her out!’
I can’t believe you just said that. Look at her. Look at the look on her face now that she knows you want her dead.
That’s enough internal conflict, right? Well, you’d think that, being human and all. But the demonic prowess that is Alistair isn’t letting Sid off that easy. Sid feels like a pervert for fantasizing about Jamie Hayes, his flatmate and best friend since college. He’s afraid he’ll ruin their friendship, so he’s just been pining after Jamie for ten years like, “This is fine. I’m fine. I’ll just suffer forever.” This is the core of the problem, but Sid is too distracted by his ambivalent sexuality to address the real issue. By not admitting to himself that he’s actually gay, he doesn’t have to look deeper into his attachment to Jamie.
See, the thing about a woman-less world is that people still have needs. So everyone had to adapt to having sex with each other to fulfill these needs or they went without. Even pornographic material depicting women has been outlawed. Books depicting women or written by women were also outlawed. So were movies and music. There are no (legal) traces of anything feminine in this world at all. Not everyone who’s engaging in sexual interactions with men are actually gay. They’re just trying to fill a need they still have with what’s available.
So this means that there’s a lot of confusion about sexuality in this world. Men are having sex with men, but they have to ask themselves, “Am I doing this because I’m gay or because I have no other choice? If women existed here, would I be attracted to them?” Some of the older generation who were straight and in their twenties (or older) at the time of the quarantine are even worse off, because they know who they are. They know they aren’t gay. They’ve been with women and enjoyed it. They’re confident in their sexuality as straight men. Now they live in a world denying them access to what they know they need, wishing for what they can’t have. It definitely takes a toll on everyone’s mental health.
But for Sid and Jamie, this is all they’ve ever known. They don’t have a basis for comparison. Since Sid only has sex with men out of need, he sees sex as a perverted, dirty necessity. It’s something he does without forming emotional attachments to those he hooks up with. Because of this, he feels deep shame for his sexual attraction to Jamie. It’s like he thinks that fantasizing about his friend and flatmate equates to reducing him to shameful, pornographic material. Sid spends most of this novel lying to himself about his deep love for Jamie, but if he would only admit his feelings to himself, then most of his shame would probably evaporate.
We don’t know much about Jamie’s internal thought processes. He plays his cards pretty close to his chest for the entire novel. But I will say that I have a love-hate relationship with him and that he’s a very serious, calculating man. He cares about Sid, but a lot of the time his mission to topple the government takes priority over Sid. And I have a hard time forgiving that, considering that Sid’s top priority is always Jamie from the beginning until the end.
So, now that I’ve got the basic foundation of this review nice and set, let’s give y’all a complete play-by-play of the novel and my thoughts as I read it! ♥
CHAPTER ONE opens with Sid and Jamie sitting at a bar, waiting on a friend to join them. Jamie’s pretty tipsy already and Alistair does a fantastic job of showing readers their closeness right off rip. He accomplishes this by showing us that Sid can tell how much Jamie’s drank just by noticing subtle changes in his personality and body language. Alistair also gives us a great glimpse into Sid’s psychosis from the start of chapter one through demonstration.
The telly on the wall’s trying to give everyone a seizure. I hear static and what sounds like the distant voices of the presenters, only that’s not possible cos the mute symbol’s blinking on the top right corner of the flat screen.
Jamie’s been bitching this whole time about not being able to get published because his writing is “too serious” and all publishers want are fluffy escapism pieces. Jamie pays a lot of attention to Sid and monitors him, even while shit-faced. For example, when Sid begins singing “It’s Raining Men”, a song he sings to comfort himself, Jamie shushes him. This might seem dismissive, but later in the story we learn that Sid doesn’t like a lot of attention being drawn to his illness. He doesn’t disclose it to everyone, because he doesn’t want people thinking he’s dangerous or looking at him weird. So Jamie discreetly shushing him lets Sid know, “Hey, you’re doing that out loud,” and also helps to break him out of it. However, Jamie is still drunk and doesn’t have the best judgment in his current state, so he’s not filtering himself very well. He lets stress and anger seep into his tone when he’s ranting about the injustice of the publishing world and society in general. The stress triggers Sid, who tries to hide his tic from Jamie by pretending to tuck a strand of hair behind his ear. But again, drunk Jamie still catches it and gives him a worried look. I wanted to mention all this to show you how close these two men are, how connected. It also paints a pretty clear picture of how their relationship with one another works.
Now, I have a terrible habit of reading the opening pages of any story with lightning-fast speed, committing only the most prominent information to memory. As a result, I didn’t realize that when the barman (Reg) played an Irish folk song that it was dangerous because the singer was female. Then again, we aren’t told that women are outlawed by this point anyway. We get hints of it, but it isn’t said outright. Hence, I didn’t catch it.
When this song comes on, the whole tavern goes quiet. Men lift their glasses in memoriam of the women they lost and Jamie prepares to do the same. But Sid stops him, recognizing the danger and growing intensely fearful. “It’s Raining Men” is playing at full-blast in Sid’s head and, thankfully, Jamie abandons his would-be gesture of solidarity. The police show up and shut down the bar, taking Reg with them, and Reg looks around at his bar with sad eyes, as if seeing it for the last time. There’s been this old guy in the corner the whole time just reading a newspaper. He doesn’t even look up when the police come in and haul Reg out, so it looks like he’s the informant.
Outside the bar, Sid lights up a smoke as Jamie watches him with disapproval. This is also a good demonstration of what it’s like to live with mental illness, as most of us (myself included) smoke cigarettes for the dopamine benefits. People with depression, bipolar disorder, and other mental illnesses are statistically more likely to rely on substances (namely, nicotine) for their happy-chemical fixes.
As they stride down the street, we get a description of the crumbling buildings held together with flimsy scaffolding. A church collapsed last year and killed twenty-five people, so I’m guessing cutting London and Ireland off from the rest of the world had a negative effect on the economy. I appreciate how Alistair manages to convey all this information through showing instead of just telling us about the financial woes of the city.
The night of the first chapter is “address night”, which means this is the one night a month where an old speech from twenty-five years ago is replayed for everyone to hear. It’s propaganda, a reminder that the conditions the citizens live in right now is due to what “had to be done” back then. We learn through Sid, who works as a delivery man, the wide range of the citizens’ interpretations of the address. Some people see it as a religion, others watch it like they’d watch sports. But the older generation, the ones old enough to understand what was happening when it happened, they mourn their lost loved ones during address night. I love that the author could transform something that could have been dry and political into something to which I could emotionally connect.
Sid and Jamie continue down the street and happen upon a fender-bender. The cops show up and Sid is certain they’ll stop them, despite Jamie’s assurances. The police do stop them. They ask for their passports, being racist sacks of shit toward Sid, but they let them go on their way. I love that Alistair even managed to show readers the racism Sid faces in the very first chapter!
Jamie stops for chips on their way home and Alistair shows us that Jamie’s the Greek God of Hawt when Jamie convinces the shopkeep to serve them with nothing but a smile, despite the fact they were getting ready to close. More showing instead of telling!
Then, we get the Inciting Incident™.
A boy nabs Jamie’s chips when they come out of the store, running down the street. Jamie chases after the boy, Sid following on his heels for lack of options. When they corner the boy in an alley, they discover the boy is actually a girl. A woman. Sid goes into a sort of apathetic panic, not really outwardly reacting to the situation, but terrified on the inside.
When Sid’s phone rings, it’s Tom—the guy they were supposed to meet at Reg’s bar—and Sid agrees to meet him at another bar. It’s pretty obvious Jamie’s excited about finding a healthy woman, but he’s also freaking out in his own way. He’s surprised that Sid’s going with Tom after this, but this is how Sid copes with the shock. He wants to shut it off, ignore the problem, and I can so relate.
When I first read this inciting incident, I felt that it was understated. I wasn’t as versed in psychosis as Alistair when I read this the first time. But after reading this entire book and spending so much time with Sid, I feel intimately familiar with schizoaffective disorder. Some of Sid’s reactions and paranoia surrounding the events of this story are so relatable, I found myself weighing the differences between anxiety/depression and psychosis. Where does one end and the other begin? If there’s one thing that makes me love a book, it’s whether or not it gets me thinking. And The Old Love And The New definitely got my gears whirring!
I could tell you everything about this book, chapter by chapter, but I’ll leave it with my review of the first chapter for now. I might type up my As-I-Go Notebook Review and share it on my site later, but I think my thoughts about every event of the first chapter is more than enough to set the tone for this entire story. Alistair did a bang-up job of establishing setting, character relationships, character personalities, worldbuilding, and kickstarting the plot in just this one chapter. He’s incredibly talented and I was stunned with his work as I read this story.
But he’s a demon. The way this book ends was fucking gut-wrenching and I adore it. I love that he hurt us and himself to give us such a raw, honest ending. At first I hated him for it, but after I processed and took a moment to breathe, I understood the bigger picture and the lesson this ending teaches. The lesson of this story is, “Even if you get what you want, there’s still going to be pain.” That’s valuable. Too many stories end with sunshine and rainbows, giving you that warm, fuzzy feeling in the pit of your stomach. That’s how life is supposed to be, right? That’s what we want it to be. We want to know that at the end of our struggle, we’ll find peace and happiness. “Everything will be okay.” But it won’t. In life, everything is never going to be okay. Not for long anyway. Even if we solve a really big problem in our lives, there’s still going to be other problems we’ll have to deal with.
For example, let’s say the goal of your “story” is to get your car fixed so you can drive it. You accomplish that. Now is everything in your life perfect? Of course not. You get a dopamine rush because this was the issue causing you the most stress, but you still have auxiliary problems like money, family, friends, etcetera.
When we get to the end of this book, everything is not okay. The characters didn’t get everything that they wanted, but they did get some of it. And that is the most honest kind of storytelling I’ve read in a long time. Preorder your copy of The Old Love And The New here: https://books2read.com/TheOldLoveAndTheNew