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Ones to watch in 2024: Ali Millar

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Book Review
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United Kingdom
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Copyright 2024 JPIMedia Publishing Ltd All Rights Reserved
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(January 8, 2024 Monday). Ones to watch in 2024: Ali Millar. Scotsman. https://advance.lexis.com/api/document?collection=news&id=urn:contentItem:6B2B-G591-F15H-20H2-00000-00&context=1516831.

When we, her readers, last caught sight of Ali Millar, it was the last pages of The Last Days, her 2022 memoir about growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness in the Borders. Her mother had told her that, as Ali no longer believed in God, they could no longer see each other. In the world of Jehovah’s Witnesses, this is called “disfellowshipping” – an ugly word for an ugly practice: shunning someone completely, cutting them off, making clear that they are now effectively dead to you.

The Last Days will teach you a lot more than that about the Jehovah’s Witnesses. (Who knew, for example, that three male elders could quiz a married woman, alone in her own Edinburgh living room, about how much pleasure she got from her premarital sex life, measured on a scale of one to five?) For most of its readers, though, I suspect, the main thing the book taught was the writerly skill with which Millar brought the world of the Witnesses to life, from a child’s awe at imminent Armageddon, an anorexic teenager’s faith struggles or, as an adult, the final, savage sunderings of disfellowship. Only a good writer can make you care about a stranger caught up in – to me, anyway – such an alien and alienating web, but as Millar had already done just that, one couldn’t help wondering what she would write next.

Ava, Anna, Ada – her debut novel – is the answer. It is set in a dystopic near-future, but one in which there is at least no apocalypse-tinged religion, no characters who have walked straight out of one book into another. It is a world of fable and warnings: not the expanded photo album of a memoir but something altogether darker, where ecological catastrophe – the Wave – is just around the corner, every home has a Value Meter and those with low scores constantly face Deportation. The local village has a Sorting Centre where such people (and migrants) are processed. None of these phenomena are examined in detail, which somehow makes them all the more nightmarish. The two books, and the two worlds within them, could hardly be more different. Or could they?

Certainly, Millar admits, her targets are different. Anna, her central character, is grieving for her dead daughter Ada. Before Ada’s death, Anna had spent a lot of time writing about her otherwise perfect life on the Screen. In our terms, she’s a social media influencer.

“Influencers are massively important in the world that the book inhabits,” says Millar from her kitchen in Hastings, where she and her family have lived for the last couple of months. “I started using Instagram when my children were little, and of course to begin with, I thought that these parenting influencers were presenting a real world, just little snapshots of their daily lives. And then I realised that it operated in a very similar way to the religion I had left.

“They were acting as kind of cult figures and the people who liked them were indeed called followers, but they were masquerading as your friend in order to get more followers, and to sell things so that they get more money. And I thought this was just so disingenuous and so fake, and also the images were so staged. It seemed to be a tipping point in our ability to understand reality.” Trump’s rise, fake news, influencers copying each other and even the prospect of AI-generated influencers all seemed to unbalance that process even more.

As she talks – eloquently, forcefully and in whole paragraphs – about influencers, it’s not hard to detect the same impulse – call it rebelliousness, stubbornness, or scepticism – that led her to break with the Witnesses. “A lot of these parenting influencers would dress themselves up as being eco-friendly, living a very sustainable life,” she says, “but basically they were still just flogging products. I just found the disconnect between what they were portraying and the actual unreality of it just so bizarre. We’re all looking at all of this on our phones and it's just a distraction technique when something huge [the ecological crisis] is coming at us. So that, of course, has to be my story. And it had to be a horror story, because of the times we are living in politically.

“It was very much like I'd left a religion where I was used to language distorting reality. And suddenly here it was happening on my screen again. The Internet has changed how we speak, how we refer to things, and also how much of life has become a performance. I think we are living in a very performative time.”

Ava, a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, is entranced by influencer Anna’s perfect world, although she knows exactly how imperfect – indeed, tragic – it really is. Their intertwined relationship is complex, deceitful and dark, mirroring the toxic times they both live in, for Millar’s novel is as much psychodrama as satirical fable. The novel is, she admits, hard to summarise: “I haven’t got an elevator pitch for it yet."

By the end of our interview, I can see an outline of one. It’s about the aftermath of faith – a subject she tells me she wants to address in her next non-fiction book. It’s not true, she says, that you start off with a clean slate once you have abandoned a religion: it still marks you. Talking about The Last Days, she was amazed to find out how strongly it resonated with people from other denominations too who had also lost their faith, “especially in Protestant Scotland”.

There is one final, lingering link between Millar’s two books. In her substack, Ali Millar’s 3am Things, she mentioned that it was only when she was on her third draft of writing Ava Anna Ada that she realised she was writing about her mother’s absence once again. “Even when I’m not writing about her, she’s there. The grief haunts and lurks. I couldn’t and wouldn’t write what I do if she were still in my life.”

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