What would happen if all our major banks collapsed?
It's not such an out there question, considering how close Britain came just a few years ago to financial disaster. Even though we didn't hit rock bottom, we're still feeling the effects of a recession.
The extreme situation is one explored by Gillian Cross in her novel After Tomorrow, which follows Matt and his younger brother Taco as they are forced to flee through the Channel Tunnel to France after their home situation deteriorates.
The pair live with their mum and Taco's dad, growing their own vegetables to trade in for other food. But they're soon targeted by armed robbers and dubbed 'scadgers' - the term given to hoarders.
After one attack leaves Matt's grandad dead, and another results in his mum suffering a horrific attack, the family decide to head to the continent, just hours before the French shut the Channel Tunnel. At the last minute Matt's mum has to stay behind, leaving Matt, Taco and Justin to fend for themselves.
I found After Tomorrow really difficult to put down, it was just so interesting. Cross often leaves out the nastier elements, such as the fact that Matt's mum was raped by the armed robbers, but it rings true to life because that's something Matt wanted to gloss over, and by doing so he was able to deal with it.
Cross is good at exploring what it means to be a refugee. So often we see pictures on television of people fleeing their country because they're in danger, but when Matt and Justin find themselves in that situation they find it difficult to cope. Matt goes in to a denial of sorts, refusing to learn a word of French (he even calls the place where the refugee camp is Lemon Dough throughout the book) and entertain the prospect that the camp they are forced in to stay in will be their long-term home.
Matt is tied to home by his grandad's bicycle, which somehow survived the trip to France, albeit a little damaged. The bike is almost a metaphor for different stages of Matt's life - back at home it represents safety, order and family, in France it represents a family that has been dented and damaged and still survives, and in the end it proves to be just an object, worth a lot but still less than a family.
Justin copes in a different way, by falling in to a depression. It's only when he finds a way to make himself useful (tending the garden of a French woman) that he feels better. Even then, despite the fact that Justin is the adult, it's Matt who so often acts like the one in charge.
The secondary characters in After Tomorrow are also excellently rendered. There's Bob, the fixer, who helps Matt's family escape to France and then helps Matt to find a way to earn money in the camp. Paige and Muriel, two of the other refugees (Bob' daughter and another woman) prove to be confidants and helpers, although at first it may not seem that way. Stef, a Frenchwoman, becomes a saviour of sorts, while other minor characters all play their part.
Cross uses After Tomorrow to explore moral issues. If you're hungry and need to fend for your family, is stealing okay? Is it alright to rob people who have more so that you can survive? Those are questions that don't have right or wrong answers, not in the context of this book, but Cross convincingly portrays both sides of the argument.
One of the best things about After Tomorrow is that its exploration of character and issues takes place over just one book - there doesn't appear to be a sequel on the horizon. Nowadays, it seems all children's and YA authors are writing series and sagas for the sake of it, so it's great to see an author who is not afraid to leave some things untold, who will let the reader imagine what happens next.
Cross's novel is dystopian fiction at its finest, partially because it seamlessly blends our current reality into a situation that is all too easy to imagine could be possible.
How I got this book: From the library