How to Survive Everything

Ewan Morrison

Contraband, £9.99

Review by Malcolm Forbes

Ewan Morrison’s finest and most inventive novels have revolved around striking female protagonists struggling to make sense of who they are in sinister, sealed-off realms. In his acclaimed last work Nina X (2019), the eponymous heroine recounted growing up in a Maoist cult without toys, books or friends. In the overlooked and underappreciated Close Your Eyes (2012), Rowan describes how she was raised in a commune, cocooned from the “plastic people” of the outside world.

Morrison reprises this trope for his latest novel. However, unlike lesser writers who adhere to tried-and-tested formulas to churn out more of the same, Morrison employs familiar ideas as a starting point from which to cover new ground. In How to Survive Everything his lead character is a teenage girl and his closed society is an off-the-beaten-track prepper hideout. What begins as a topical thriller soon deepens into a complex, thought-provoking drama about fake news, real fears and frayed family ties.

Early one morning in October 2025, 15-year-old Haley and her younger brother Ben are awoken by their father, Ed, and taken on one of his secret “vaventures”. Their destination is a remote safe house surrounded by razor wire “near Loch Etrie”. Haley quickly realises she has been abducted by her parent and for her own good. The “catastrophic Covid-19 pandemic of 2019-21” might be a thing of the past, but a new, more virulent pandemic – “the final one” – is on its way. According to Ed, one quarter of the world’s population will die from Virus X and two quarters more will perish from the total collapse of civilisation.

It turns out Ed has been preparing for this cataclysm for five years. His fortified lockdown retreat is a self-sustaining living environment which comes complete with a vast rations bunker stocked with food, water and medicine. He is guardian and guru to four “prepper buddies” who assist with the running of the place. Meg, Danny, Ray and Kade are also tasked with keeping safe – or holding captive – an increasingly restless Haley.

That restless streak develops into a rebellious one when Haley’s mother arrives on the scene and informs her that her father is clinically insane and has suffered delusions about the end of the world before. Haley is forced to grow up fast and make life-or-death decisions to break free. But when tragedy strikes and one of the group shows the symptoms of contamination, she begins to wonder if there is method in her father’s madness and the pandemic is a clear and present threat.

Morrison’s previous book unfolded through Nina X’s journals. This one takes the form of a survival guide. Haley’s hard-won wisdom and experience comes to us through a series of mock-manual headings. Most relate to staying sane and alive. Some flag up imminent action (“How To Plan An Escape”), others hint at heartache or defeat (“Accept That You Did All That You Could”).

Haley’s new normal manages to be both exciting and terrifying. Tension mounts as she clashes with her captors or tries to outwit them. A daring escape is made up of several heart-in-the-mouth moments. But the most suspenseful interlude – and indeed the book’s standout set-piece – is a blow-by-blow account of an amputation. As with Ian McEwan’s scene of home surgery in The Innocent, Morrison succeeds in attracting and repelling in equal measure.

Some readers will run a mile from a novel about a future pandemic and a bleak new world. But Morrison topples our expectations, surprising us with unexpected twists and bouts of black comedy, while simultaneously grappling with big ideas including the value of freedom, the cost of madness and the dangers of manipulation. It is a bold and compelling book by a writer whose creative risks continue to pay huge dividends.