Ever since Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, Brexit has been the number one subject in British politics and media. It’s dominated political debates, it’s been all over the news and it trended repeatedly on social media. It’s also found its way into literature and film. Authors have begun to use stories to reflect on the divided nature of the UK and the consequences of the referendum. This so-called Brexit literature, or BrexLit, takes all sorts of shapes, from poetry over magical realism all the way to dystopia. But how can literature help us make sense of Britain’s withdrawal and its repercussions? Let’s look at a few examples!
Ali Smith’s Autumn (2016)
Published shortly after the referendum, Autumn is considered the first great Brexit novel. It’s set in post-Brexit Britain and follows the extraordinary friendship of Elizabeth Demand, a 32-year-old art history lecturer, and Daniel Gluck, a 101-year-old former songwriter. Against the backdrop of the aftermath of the Brexit-vote, it explores themes of time, friendship, memory, identity and art.
Although it isn’t primarily about Brexit, Autumn captures very well the sense of detachment and disillusionment that followed the vote. The village Elizabeth’s mother lives in serves as a microcosm of Brexit Britain. The referendum has just occurred and the villagers are split into two opposing camps; into those who “felt it was the wrong thing” and those who “felt it was the right thing.” It’s has become a time, the narrator tells us, “of people saying stuff to each other and none of it actually ever becoming dialogue.” This isn’t so much a novel pro or against Brexit, but a poetic exploration of the tensed atmosphere within Brexit Britain. One of the roots of Brexit was (and is) a failure in communication and this novel very much reminds us of that.
Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (2017)
Exit West tells the story of two young lovers who migrate from their war-torn city in the Middle-East (the name of the city is never mentioned) to Greece, then to London and finally to San Francisco. What makes Hamid’s novel so special is that he blends magical elements into his otherwise realistic narrative. In this world, people no longer have to undertake long journeys, but they step through doors that–though also perilously and for a price–transport them somewhere else.
In this novel, Hamid not only deconstructs the image of migrants as threatening ‘Other,’ but he also points to the downsides of nostalgic thinking. Whereas many British politicians and Brexit proponents propagate a nostalgic view of the nation’s past, Hamid insists that it’s not possible to go back to some ‘glorious’ time in the past as life is transient. The world is going to become more and more globalized, more connected so that to ‘take back control,’ to return to a time when things seemed to be under control, is illusionary. So instead of isolating oneself further and further, as the UK does, Hamid encourages people to think about not only the challenges but also the chances that come with global mobility and open borders.
John Lanchester’s The Wall (2019)
Set in the near future, The Wall follows the story of a young man who has grown up in a country where beaches have disappeared, people get chipped, and citizens are forced to serve for two years on ‘the Wall,’ which is precisely that: a giant 10.000 km long concrete barrier built around the country’s coastline to keep migrants, or so-called ‘Others,’ from coming in.
The allusions the novel makes to Brexit are quite obvious. One of the central fears that contributed to Britain leaving the EU was the fear of mass-migration. Right-winged politicians cleverly played on these fears by claiming, for example, that millions of low-skilled and criminal immigrants would flood the country if Britain were to stay in the EU. Lanchester’s novel picks up on these trends and brings them to their logical, though admittedly drastic, conclusion. The most obvious solution to stop people from coming in would be to set up a wall and have people defend the country’s borders. While many people might wish for this to happen, Lanchester highlights the downsides of a Britain isolating itself further and further. Refugees might be hindered to come into the country, but the prize for this is a surveillance state in which people are chipped, controlled and forced to risk their lives in an attempt to keep everyone else out.
As the long-term consequences of Brexit are still unfolding, I think we’ll see more and more Brexit literature emerging in the coming years. Maybe it’s important to mention that Brexit didn’t divide the nation, but merely revealed divisions that were already there. Literature helps us make sense of these divisions and makes us understand that the roots of Brexit weren’t only political. The next years and decades are going to be challenging for the UK and Europe, and maybe it’s time to listen to what the arts have to say.
Have you read any of these novels? Do you know any further novels that could claim the label BrexLit? Let me know in the comment section below!