Tanvir Bush’s novel ‘CULL’ was published by Unbound in early 2019, and is described as ‘a dark, satirical novel that hypothetically asks what could happen if the UK government sanctioned state-sponsored ‘euthanasia’ as a social cost-cutting exercise.’ Review by Emmeline Burdett.
The protagonist, Alex, is visually impaired, and she and her guide dog Chris begin an investigation into the sinister goings-on at the Grassybanks Residential Home – an investigation which ultimately brings to light the government’s whole ghastly plan to rid society of those they consider valueless.
Though the novel is carefully described as ‘hypothetically asking what would happen’, it is clear that it is in many respects grounded in reality. The novel’s Afterword discusses a 2016 United Nations report which found that the UK government was guilty of ‘grave and systematic violations’ of the rights of disabled people in the UK.
The following year, the UN reiterated its findings, and its representative on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), Theresia Degener, was quoted as saying that the government’s austerity policies amounted to a ‘human catastrophe’, which ‘totally neglected the vulnerable situation people with disabilities find themselves in’.
As the UN report makes clear, this ‘vulnerable situation’ is not something which exists naturally, but something which is created. This point is hammered home in CULL, and is eloquently expressed in the novel by the character Laura Shandy, who says: “I am getting tired of the names, of having my chair kicked, of being spat at … I will have to go to some place, some centre and, I tell you, I know what they will do there”. (p.313).
The novel shows how the sufferings of the disabled characters are compounded because a vicious media campaign conditions the wider society to see them as ‘cheats’ and ‘workshy scroungers’, isolating them and ensuring that even when their plight is noticed, it is relativised or held to be justified. Discriminatory lack of access ensures that opportunities for them to interact with non-disabled people on an equal footing are kept to a minimum, leading to the widespread assumption that any difficulties they experience are the direct result of their impairments, when in fact they result from societal exclusion and rejection, and an officious insistence that a bit of window-dressing will be sufficient to change the situation of a person in need.
For example, Alex visits ‘Job Central’ where she encounters Joanna Honey, who has lost her disability benefit after being found ‘fit for work’. We are told that in fact “It doesn’t seem to matter to anyone that Joanna has the mental age of a seven-year-old and is terrified of being out of her bedroom. No-one cares”. (p.46)
This is not, however, something that the wider public is aware of – one chapter set at a dinner party, in which a ‘reality’ show entitled Scumbag Street is discussed, makes it clear that in the popular imagination, people such as Joanna simply do not exist. Instead, such programmes encourage the view that all benefit claimants are milking the system: “There wasn’t one of them who wasn’t cheating the system and loving it. They were hateful”, says a viewer of Scumbag Street. (p.182).
The novel contains an additional layer of symbolism, in that the names of some of the characters reference people who were instrumental in the development of the Nazi ‘euthanasia’ programme of 1939-1945. For example, two of the characters – a celebrated physician and his daughter, a rising politician, have the surname Binding, which references Karl Binding, the co-author of Die Freigabe der Vernichtung lebensunwerten Lebens, a tract used by the Nazis to justify the ‘euthanasia’ programme. The advantage of coupling this subtle suggestion of parallels with Nazi attitudes to disabled people with the book’s compelling discussion of how these attitudes operate, and their potentially catastrophic effects, is extremely valuable, as it allows the reader to make up his or her own mind on this important issue.
All-in-all, this is an extremely rewarding and important novel. It gives a compelling and sympathetic portrait of the situation many disabled people find themselves in, and offers an important counter-narrative to the view of disabled people which is to be found in much of the mainstream media.
Tanvir Bush explains her motivations for writing the novel