Book review – Stillicide by Cynan Jones

Originally written as a commission for BBC Radio 4, this spare, vivid book conjures a time when drinking water has become a rare and precious commodity.

Cynan Jones describes Stillicide as a collection of interlinked short stories. Each provides additional viewpoints and textures to the overarching examination of a future in which water is commodified.

As with all of Cynan’s writing, individual sentences have been honed into missiles, designed to carry and deliver information and emotion in the most efficient way possible, with the spaces on the page designed to make their impact all the more resonant.

Far from being bleak, the chapters or stories are a comfort to climb into, as each is understood from inside a single character’s mind. There’s an unexpected but welcome sense of being sheltered by their grey matter, and of gazing outwards at the strange, thirsty world they inhabit. A meditative quality seeps from the pages, even as the themes themselves ripple with injustice and quiet rage.

The space Cynan has created is far enough removed to give him the freedom to invent at will, yet close enough to remain dauntingly recognisable.

Cynan crafts this future’s scaffolding with a delicate hand, keeping our focus on the inhabitants with only occasional references to “alcowash” and “immunotabs” to remind us that on some level, things must have gone very wrong. Climate change is never mentioned, yet the implications of a society where a train carrying water to cities must be protect by threats not only of violence but death are only too clear.

Throughout the fables, or perhaps cautions, moments of beauty bubble up – children running from a hacked water main, “bright clothes flashing like deers’ tails”, banter between a father and grown offspring, “The shock of a cactus flower. A bright cerise pink”, the discovery of a cast dragonfly nymph skin. Open to almost any page at random and you’ll glimpse something powerful that urges you to murmur the words aloud:

“The day seemed indecisive. The breakers of the outgoing tide smushed and drew. Sand martins spun from their tunnels in the cliffs.” (p40 in the 2019 edition).

Cynan’s love of language drops the occasional gem into your path to, such as: “The smell of stone in the air when it rains after days of sun. There’s a word for that. Petrichor.” Beautiful.

Stillicide’s warning to relish the scraps of wilderness still surrounding us is stark, but the strongest message is one of hope. As one narrator observes in ‘Paper Flowers’, “people are astonishing.’

Shored up by our resilience, ingenuity and ability to adapt, the human race and nature will continue to find a way. It just might not quite resemble the world as we know it right now.

Stillicide by Cynan Jones was first heard on BBC Radio 4 and is published by Granta.

What are you reading? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a book review, please send an email to judydarley(at)