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Six Feet Deep: Diane Awerbuck Reviews SL Grey’s Under Ground

By Diane Awerbuck for the Sunday Times

Under GroundUnder Ground
SL Grey (Pan Macmillan)

Under Ground will available from the first week of August

A friend used to say that he wasn’t against nuclear families, per se: it was just that they went on for too long. He thought that kids by age 14 should have to leave their parents and make their own way. If my friend reads Under Ground – and he should, as should you – he’s going to find his theory confirmed.

Fourth in the loosely connected series by SL Grey, Under Ground is the latest addition to bunkerlit. Think of some people you dislike, and then imagine yourself trapped with them in a small space for an indefinite period. Just like home.

Or just like The Decameron, Boccaccio’s fourteenth-century collection of the stories told by a group of people sheltering in a secluded villa just outside Florence from the Black Death.

In Under Ground, the characters are running from an Ebola-type megavirus and the global chaos it sows. The Sanctum is a deep-level, self-sustaining, luxury bolthole for wealthy apocalypse-preppers. Things go horribly wrong almost immediately. Social niceties, never much observed to begin with, degenerate fast as the water supply gives out and desperation sets in. Though the action takes place over a couple of days, people get sick quickly, and others die in very suspicious ways as SL Grey examines the inherent lie about the End of Days: that the self-elected chosen are worth saving.

SL Grey is the pseudonym that authors Louis Greenberg and Sarah Lotz when they write together. Greenberg concedes that their latest book, as a locked-room mystery, was difficult to write. “The very constricted location had to be rendered without becoming repetitive or numbing. Often you can use location and environmental detail to freshen the reader’s mind, but we didn’t have that luxury in The Sanctum. But we hope that restriction works in our favour by adding to the sense of claustrophobia.” The whodunnit aspect meant that the writers had to know the plot and ending in advance, and seed clues along the way.

The setting transplant to the United States – previous SL Grey novels are planted firmly in South African soil – is a canny move. Greenberg says the location and scenario were chosen for maximum appeal. “The US is almost generic in the context, but it’s the most feasible place where a set of wealthy survivalists might buy into a scheme like The Sanctum.” If Under Ground gets international readers to follow the breadcrumb trail to the truly terrifying Grey backlist, so much the better.

While the writers are conscious of their characters as stereotypes – the feisty redhead, the gun-toting religious nut, the frothing rapist, the geek – it is not clear whether it’s the stress that makes them so believably predictable, and I could have done with more of the sly humour of the previous novels.

In the guise of pulp, Under Ground continues the themes already expressed by both Lotz and Greenberg in their other works: entrenched gender disparity; the overweening weirdness of religion; the powerlessness of childhood; tribalism and isolation. They pull all this off along with a couple of fantastic plot twists, saving the reversals for the final chapters. These upsets are horrible, and worth the price of the book alone. Under Ground is vintage Grey – another clever, poisonous thriller that sticks with you after the characters have been gruesomely dispatched.

Just remember where it came from. The bunker is a place not unfamiliar to the paler South African family still dining – yea, unto the third and fourth generation – on the chakalaka Pa stockpiled in 1994.

Don’t say that spec/fic didn’t warn you. There are other kinds of bunkers, and we cower in them still, while prejudiced shadows dance on the walls.

Home: There’s no place like it.

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