Monday 20 October 2014


Book review: Breakdown by Sarah Mussi

My edition: Paperback, published on 2 October 2014 by Hot Key Books, 418 pages.

Description: It is 2084. Nuclear radiation has poisoned the country. Society has fallen apart. Starvation is rampant, and power shortages have resulted in piles of obsolete gadgetry. Necessity has driven those who've survived to complete self-reliance, if they have the means to do so. For Melissa and her Nan, survival is just about possible, so long as they can guard the tiny crop of potatoes in their back garden and find enough fuel to cook on - and as long as they are safely barricaded inside their home by curfew.

For after dark, feral dogs hunt, and violent gangs from the old Olympic Stadium (now a miserable ghetto) roam to loot and plunder. If they catch you, they are not merciful; so when Melissa falls into the hands of Careem's gang, her prospects look bleak. But Careem soon realises that she might just be more valuable alive, as a ransom victim. However, he hasn't reckoned with Melissa's resourcefulness. Soon part of his young gang are completely beguiled by Melissa and her story of a hidden valley in Scotland - a place that sounds like a comparative paradise, if they can get there. But apparently only Melissa knows the way, and only she can lead them there.

But Melissa is hiding a secret. She has never been to Scotland in her life, let alone a mythically Elysian valley there. Can Melissa's stories keep her alive long enough to escape - or will they get her killed?


After reading the exceptionally well-written and mesmerising Station Eleven earlier this year (read my full review here), I didn't think another post-apocalyptic novel could blow me away for a long time to come, but Sarah Mussi's Breakdown came close. Very close.

The year is 2084 and nuclear radiation is at the heart of a broken society without a democratic government. Those that survived are hiding in their homes or band together in violent gangs as the streets are scattered with feral dogs ready to kill anyone weak to feed on, and people who are willing to do the same for a scrap of food or a tattered pair of shoes. With supplies scarce, it is the means to fight for anything that can be traded that is imperative to survive and so anyone weak, old or ill is doomed to be dog food.

Melissa has survived for years with her nan in their family home, living off the meagre potatoes and other produce they're able to grow in the backyard and scouting the streets to find trade for whatever else they need. But one day when when they're outside the safety of their little hideaway in London they're attacked by a group of dogs and Melissa ends up nearly drowning in the filth of the Thames, only rescued at the last moment by a boy around her own age; Tarquin.

When she regains consciousness he urges her to leave but Melissa doesn't get away before other members of the boy's gang find them and bring her to the old Olympic Stadium, where they live. Soon she finds herself confined and in the clutches of their sadistic leader; Careem. Her only hope to escape is building on the trust she's gained from Tarquin and his little brother Lenny, who worships her from the moment he lays his impressionable eyes on the older girl.

Melissa tells them they that could live in the safety of rural Scotland. The nuclear radiation has slowly disappeared from the air and nature is restoring the earth, so they can live comfortably from the land once more. All Tarquin and Lenny have to do is help her escape and she'll bring them to the idyllic cottage pictured in the keychain she carries with her everywhere she goes. But the road to Scotland is filled with obstacles and dangers and while Tarquin and Lenny trust her, what Melissa hasn't told them is that the picture in the keychain is from a place her grandmother visited when she was a child herself. It's not their family's cottage and even if it was, it would be long gone by now.

Breakdown is aimed at the YA market, but though the reader may be younger that that of the previously mentioned Station Eleven, the world-building in this novel is equally solid and complex, the characters are compelling and the story is told with incredible and almost frightening realism. Sarah Mussi has infused her post-apocalyptic world with so much detail and plausible progressions that it really isn't such a far stretch to believe that this horrifying future is the natural evolution from where we are today.

When I initially read the blurb for this novel I assumed it to be a quiet journey like the similarly themed How I Live Now by fellow YA-author Meg Rosoff; teenagers bonding together in a remote part of the country while all around them there is devastation. But Breakdown is far more action-driven, unexpected and cruel, showing the horrors people turn into when they're faced with the choice between kill or be killed. Everywhere Melissa, Tarquin and Lenny go there are people who have dealt with the catastrophe in a different way but they've all reverted to a more primitive and harsher version of themselves.

Breakdown is incredibly realistic and well written; the characters are by no means flawless but they're hugely believable and as a reader you can't help but root for Melissa despite her deceitful actions towards Tarquin and the innocent Lenny. And being familiar with the present day version of many of the places Melissa visits it was frightening to read what the world could turn into in just a few decades' time. The mention of the Eurotunnel as a means to reach the continent in particular hit home for me and I already mentally started to calculate what the odds would be for me to reach my family in the Netherlands from London if it ever came to that (answer: not very good).

Thoroughly gripping, this is one of the most interesting and complex young adult books I've read in a long time. It'll make you contemplate the scary implications of the road we're on as a society while reading and long after turning the final page too; it's a captivating and thoughtful novel.

You can purchase the novel from Waterstones, or your own preferred retailer.

Would you like to know more about the author? You can connect with her online at:



Twitter: @sarahmussi

Many thanks to Hot Key Books for a copy of the novel in exchange for an honest review.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Share Button