Book Review – The Employees by Olga Ravn

books, reviews

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I’d love to be the kind of reader who keeps up with all of the literary awards. You know the person I mean. They take note of the longlists and shortlists when they’re released. Then they manage to make their way through them before the winner is revealed. For one thing, who can get their hands on that many books? For another, who has such a small TBR that they can happily add so many books to them? If I tried to do this with the major literary awards then I’d never cope. So, I tend to have a look through the lists and then see if any take my fancy. Even then, I don’t tend to read them in time because I never do. However, sometimes a book comes along that has such an exciting premise that I can’t not pick it up. The Employees was one of those books. I knew that I had to read it and I had to read it soon.

Out of all of the novels shortlisted for this years’ International Booker Prize, The Employees was the one that appealed to me the most. It was such an interesting concept and I was sure that it would be a fantastic reading experience. It definitely appealed to me that the book was around 130 pages long because I figured I’d be finished with it no time. That didn’t happen for two reasons. The first was that I was in something of a slump when I started this, which I can’t blame this book for. The second was because there is a lot going on in this deceptively small piece of literature. It deals with such large topics and asks so many big questions. It’s amazing that there is space to open up such a grand dialogue but Olga Ravn manages to make it work even in such a short book.

A book that is even shorter than it first seems as well. The story is set out as a series of witness statements from the crew onboard the Six-Thousand Ship. These statements vary in length and there is plenty of blank space to be found. Some of the entries are short and don’t give an awful lot of detail while others give plenty of context to the story. It’s an interesting format and I think it works effectively. It certainly gives the reader plenty to think about along the way as it is not always clear what we’re concerned about. The entries are all anonymous and only a few give any real insight into the person relaying the information. So you really have to scrutinise all of the details to find out everything you need to know.

The crew is a mix between humans and humanoid but it is always apparent which is which. It isn’t always obvious which of the voices were born and which were man-made. They begin to mix and share traits. As the statements continue, we learn that the crew have recently taken possession of a bunch of strange objects from the planet New Discovery. Once the objects are on the ship, both human and non-human crew members begin to long for things they no longer have. There is a shared desire for intimacy and connection. The human crew longs for the planet they left behind and for the family they no longer have. This is a book that dissects what it means to be human and the role that work plays in our daily lives.

I think The Employees is a really interesting read and I enjoyed the way the format changed. The varying length of the different statements gave the novel a unique pace and gave the book an odd fragmented feel. You really did find yourself in the position of a corporate employee sifting through the information to find out something important. Despite the faux official form, this is beautifully written. Working your way through the statements also feels a bit like wading through a series of dreams. The detached feeling running through this and a real sense of the uncanny. These are voices discussing familiar ideas but it also feels so unnatural and strange. It’s very clever writing.

It’s a very strange book to describe but one that is definitely worth a read. The actual science-fiction elements that set up the book aren’t that important. You can put the pieces together to figure out what has happened and why but it’s not really essential. Instead, we find ourselves in the middle of a debate about what it means to be human. We see that there are far fewer differences between the human crew and the humanoid crew than we would have imagined. Once the mysterious objects are on board both sides start to feel intense feelings of loss. The humans miss their lives on Earth and the people they left behind. The humanoids grieve for the family they will never have.

Rather than finding comfort in each other, the different factions find themselves moving further apart. The differences are just too much to ignore. For one thing, their approach to work is very different. The idea of work hierarchies is key here as we see the hardworking humanoids treated like second-class citizens by their superiors. The humanoids were created to work while the humans No matter what happens, the humanoids will always be treated as equipment. Although, what happens when even they start to question their roles. It’s interesting reading this novel now when so many people’s daily routine has been turned upside down. When your job is your identity, what happens when you start to reject it? What do you become?

So, there’s an awful lot to unpack here and plenty to think about. It’s quite an intense read and one that is helped by the sensory overload in the writing. Through the combined statements of both sides, we are forced to come face-to-face with the aspects of human life that we often take for granted. It’s not as if we haven’t seen the difference between humans and humanoids before. It’s certainly been a trend that’s only getting stronger nowadays. However, Ravn does bring something unique and mesmerising to the table. There is a fantastic confidence here that shows you don’t need much to make your point. Indeed, Olga Ravn says more in 130 pages than many writers say in more than double that.

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