Rose Mulready unsettles the reader from the very first page of her 2016 Seizure Viva la Novella winning novella, The Bonobo’s Dream: a birch tree listens; a young boy, James takes off his “drawing harness” and looks out of a glass window, touching it then licking his finger, tasting it; on a smaller scale, his goldfish sing inside their own glass bowl, and we’ll soon see this echoed in the life of James’s family inside their house, and the whole city beneath its giant glass dome. The novella reveals itself as a speculative fiction from this first page, with more details being teased out in the pages that follow. James’s needy mother, Suzanne, comes in to see him, and she “smells of her morning dose”, which holds echoes of Aldous Huxley’s soma (“a gramme is better than a damn”). Aquila, James’s philandering father, a talented and well-known artist, considers the word ‘umbrella’, “meaningless now, an anachronism”, presumably because of the dome. He arranges to visit his mistress Antoinette at a hotel that is “only a short catazoom’s ride away”.
So yes, this is a speculative fiction, and one in two parts: Fishbowl and Black-Beaked Birds, but it also a deep and affecting literary fiction; we’re in a fantastical and unlikely post-apocalyptic world, but it’s the wonderfully realistic and humanly flawed characters that really drive the book forward. Circling each other in their home, self-medicating, living an unreal domed existence somehow disconnected from the reality of their situation, this family comes to life as we learn more about them. James’s sister Charity is coming to visit for her birthday, and tensions are expected. When his mother Suzanne comes in to see him and asks if he loves her, she laughs at his concern for his fish, “as if they’re real”, then leaves: