James Goodall, Features Writer

Mors Certa, Hora Incerta : Liam’s Brown’s Evergreens

Evergreens, published this year, is English author Liam Brown’s fifth novel, following his prior outing, Skin, in 2019.

In Brown’s latest, the human lifespan is something that can now be manipulated and decelerated. We each have a starting pistol in the great race of life. Some of us run further and for longer but imagine if you had control of the stopwatch.

The story begins in the 2070s. Our protagonist, Ben, has been hospitalised. His wife, Sophie, watches over him from his bedside. They are the same age, but due to a marked difference in their appearances, she is mistaken for his grandmother. We can guess the reason for this discrepancy early on: at some point in his past, Ben must have proceeded with the Evergreens programme, thereby extending his youth, whereas Sophie must have opted out. Only now Ben appears to have run into a difficulty. Something has clearly gone wrong with the treatment. Instead of maintaining his youthful streak, it appears to be hastening his demise. The elastic has finally snapped, and the years he’s been holding back are now catching up with him at an alarming rate – much in the manner of David Bowie’s vampire character, John Blaylock, in The Hunger.

We each have a starting pistol in the great race of life. Some of us run further and for longer but imagine if you had control of the stopwatch.
We then jump back to 2005. Two parallel timelines operate throughout Evergreens: one past, one future. Excerpts from the latter are considerably shorter and act as teasers, enticing the reader to guess at plot developments in advance until the two timelines eventually converge. The latter timeline is also italicised – a graphological feature Brown has employed previously, helping the reader to distinguish between the two. The earlier timeline opens in style against the glittering backdrop of Melbourne, Australia. Ben and Sophie meet here for the first time whilst on a student holiday, enjoying the nightclub scene. Sparks fly, but any chance of romance is cut short when Ben receives an abrupt call with some tragic news. His grandmother (and sole guardian) has sadly passed away.

Ben and Sophie cross paths again back in the UK but remain star-crossed acquaintances for a time. Each time the spark looks set to rekindle, Ben drops the ball. He even resorts to self-sabotage and lies to Sophie about already having a girlfriend, going so far as to invent a fictitious backstory and character profile for her. All the same, they continue to see each other as de facto boyfriend and girlfriend. And it’s while randomly meeting up and enjoying spur-of-the-moment activities together that they first learn about the Evergreens programme.

You can almost hear the hourglass draining as you read on
During a student event, a guest speaker claims to hold the elixir of life. Whilst Sophie is sceptical, Ben is enraptured. For him, the germ of an idea is planted and metastasises from here. Ben has an innate fear of mortality following the deaths of his grandma and also his uncle soon after. Not wanting to grow old and face it himself, death becomes something of an idée fixe for him. Indeed, ageing is depicted as an all-encompassing, pervasive force in the story. You can almost hear the hourglass draining as you read on. After signing multiple waivers, Ben becomes a fervent supporter of the programme and embarks upon a series of clinical trials.

Ben then begins to enjoy decades of prolonged youth, Dorian Gray-style. But there is a price: sterilisation, which Sophie then has to accept when they finally do come together and form a relationship. Their later marriage is put under considerable strain as time progresses. The Evergreens programme proves in many ways to be a zero-sum game, for while Ben enjoys the perks of an extended boyhood, Sophie continues to age conventionally – to the point where the age disparity becomes an unignorable problem. She recounts an episode in a restaurant, for instance, where the waiting staff mistake her for Ben’s mother! Their priorities in life also come into conflict. With no obligation to grow up, Ben squanders his extra time. Work becomes an anathema to him, and he grows increasingly dissolute. Sophie tries to remain positive in the face of his negativity – the cathode to his anode – but knows things can’t continue as they are.

They eventually separate. Sophie finds another partner, starts a family, and embarks on a new career; Ben, on the other hand, continues to coast. He has a few dalliances but never again forms another meaningful relationship for fear of watching his loved one grow old and die before his ageless eyes.

... we may be closer to Brown’s vision of the future than we realise. We’re continually broadening our understanding of genetics and DNA
When Ben reunites with Sophie in the 2070s, he’s horrified by how much she’s aged. His aversion here is part of a broader theme of disrespect for the elderly in Evergreens. In the 2070s timeline, the older Sophie is frequently referenced in terms of her supposed decrepitude – be it her creaking body parts or physical limitations. And at the beginning of the story, Ben treats his grandmother as an encumbrance, ignoring her calls and ridiculing her on occasion for being behind the times and out of touch with current trends.

But Ben gets a taste of his own medicine when he, too, enters his golden years and finds the next generation speaking a language he no longer understands. Though he hasn’t aged physically, he still feels the age gap and consequently fits in with neither camp.

As the narrative comes full circle and we rejoin Ben in hospital, we discover there has indeed been a problem with his ongoing treatment and that other participants in the programme have fallen ill and perished. Sophie, meanwhile, has returned to his side to help. The final chapters then become a race to save Ben’s life. Can Sophie find a cure before it’s too late?

On balance, Sophie has the better attitude toward life. Quality trumps quantity in her book. Love is what truly matters, and for her this is both ageless and undying.

Evergreens is an engaging read, thrilling and poignant in equal measure and peppered with comedic flourishes throughout. And we may be closer to Brown’s vision of the future than we realise. We’re continually broadening our understanding of genetics and DNA. Someday, we may well crack the code and unlock the secret to life itself.

It would have been interesting, however, to see a few more instances of Ben playing his gift to his advantage. Applying for a home loan, for instance. With an elongated lifespan, he could’ve secured a very accommodating mortgage term and infinitesimal repayments to boot !

Evergreens is published by Legend Press.