THEY say never judge a book by its cover, but I took one look at the livid red cover of The Pharmacist, and I wanted to dive inside.

I wasn’t disappointed. A claustrophobic nether world lies within the 350 or so pages of Rachelle Atalla’s debut novel.

In this post-apocalyptic airless city-in-a-bunker, people exist from day-to-day; going about their business like ants. Busy doing nothing. We are not told why they are there. Only that they have been there long enough for hope to have faded into oblivion.

This could be a recipe for ennui, but in the capable hands of Atalla, it is anything but.

The story is told through the eyes of a young woman, a pharmacist known as Wolfe. All the ‘inmates’ address each other by their surnames. It’s all part of a systematic process of dehumanisation.

Wolfe is our eyes and ears in the burrow-like bunker, which is governed by an all-powerful leader by the name of ND.

ND lives in some style in his luxury quarters, complete with personal chef, while his people suck on indeterminate gloop from food pouches.

Through Wolfe, we glimpse the everyday agony experienced by inmates as they repeat routines in a heavily regulated – and medicated – society.

They wear boiler-suits and sand shoes and live cheek-by-jowl in dormitories. Devoid of the comforts of their old lives, hope is hard.

The action opens with a man lying on the concrete floor of a recreation room. As Stirling, one of the bunker’s doctors, tries to help the man, Wolfe asks a couple of kids what happened. He has swallowed all the plastic Monopoly houses, she is told by one boy. And the hotels, a girl adds.

From page one, Atalla guides the reader adroitly into hearts and minds as Wolfe navigates a path which is littered with potential booby traps.

The feeling of claustrophobia is almost overpowering at times, but the humanity of Atalla’s storytelling powers through the gloom. One of the most moving scenes in the novel comes when a baby is born against the odds. The positive effect this new life has on the bunker’s inhabitants is palpable.

There are shades of George Orwell in this stunning writing debut, but Rachelle Atalla’s voice is highly original. And wholly her own.

The Pharmacist, Rachelle Atalla, Hodder & Stoughton, May 12.

Review by Jan Patience