The Pharmacist, Rachelle Atalla’s debut novel published in 2022, employs as its central premise a society attempting to survive and recover in the aftermath of an apocalyptic event. Liquefied food is dispensed in pouches to each citizen, individuals live in military-style barracks with a wall erected to ensure their health is not compromised by outsiders, and, in a nod to other contemporary dystopian fictions, individuals are referred to by their surnames. In this dystopian world, the titular pharmacist Susan Wolfe, her medical superior Dr Stirling, her new assistant Levitt, and a heavily tattooed mystery of a room-mate named Canavan attempt to negotiate the claustrophobic and ultra-sanitised world of the bunker in which they live on a day-to-day basis.
The bunker exists under a repressive and dictatorial regime run by a paranoid and unpredictable leader, ND, who manipulates his subjects in order to achieve greater authority over them. Through his promises of access to better quality food and delicacies that other citizens are denied, ND is able to maintain greater control and a closer level of surveillance over his regime by utilising the services of employees in senior or prominent positions. Those he engages in this manner are forced to remain silent about their involvement, but as the novel progresses it becomes apparent that lives are more interwoven than initially thought.
The novel begins with a death – a fundamentally strange and jarring episode that drives more questions than it answers. Templeton, a citizen of the bunker, presents himself as ill after ingesting metal pieces of a board game seemingly in an act of attempted suicide or an episode of poor mental health. Stirling, the senior medical official, takes responsibility over the situation and ends Templeton’s life via suffocation. Stirling is representative of the establishment and the governing groups of power: as the son of a Health Minister he is seen as untouchable yet safe. By contrast, Susan Wolfe exists somewhat more precariously in the bunker – though safe through her employment as the resident pharmacist, she finds herself in the midst of an affair with a local married police chief whose wife she must serve as necessitated by her profession.
The dystopian environment of the novel allows Atalla to raise key points relevant to our own times, such as the importance of access to contraception and female sanitary products and the challenges of bringing children into a world in which regimented and restricted day-to-day living is resolutely followed in order to thwart contamination, even at the risk of individual health. One of the most emotionally challenging moments in the novel occurs during a debate centred on the ethics and morality of aborting an unplanned pregnancy and the risk to the mother if the child is reared. Taking place between Wolfe, who is infertile, and a citizen with less entrenched views on the matter, the debate highlights Atalla’s ability to create a strong dynamic between characters whilst not shying away from contentious or difficult topics. Similarly, romantic relationships between characters do not feel forced or discordant; rather, the manner in which they are depicted – sparse, restrained, and suffocating – shrewdly mirrors the environment in which they play out.
The Pharmacist explores themes of control, power, survival and hierarchy through the bunker, which Atalla perceives as representing a microcosm of society. She admits her characterisation of ND was ‘loosely based on Donald Trump’ and firmly believes in the maxim that ‘you should always be writing about the things that scare you, the things that keep you up at night.’1 Although the novel was written pre-pandemic – initially as a hobby in her spare time – Atalla has explained that lockdown further highlighted to her the unfair divide that exists not only in the fictional bunker but in our own society.
Engaging and tense, The Pharmacist is a compelling read from the outset. Attalla has mentioned the potential for a television adaptation in future, and I would certainly consider it ripe for such a medium. Given Attalla’s background in writing for television, I would be most intrigued to see how she would bring the insular and suffocating environment to life on screen. More success awaits for this novelist and I am already eagerly awaiting her second novel, Thirsty Animals, which is scheduled for publication in March 2023.
The Pharmacist is published by Hodder & Stoughton
- ‘Author Rachelle Atalla on new book The Pharmacist: “You should write about what scares you”’, Sunday Post, 31 May 2022.