Does it make me sound a bit strange if I say I like post apocalyptic novels? There´s nothing like a good old dystopian vision to keep me turning the pages. So, I am hoping to devote the next few blog entries to my favourite post apocalyptic visionaries (The books are not reviewed in any particular order. However, I am quite pedantic about the fact that Margaret Atwood´s three novels, I sincerely believe, MUST be read in chronological order!)
I´m beginning with Brother in the Land purely because I have just read it. It´s on the syllabus at the school I´ve just moved to work at, so I need to familiarise myself with the text and find ways of making it interesting to young people. It shouldn´t be a difficult task (although, sometimes teaching a text can feel like slowly killing it for both pupils and teacher…saying that I still adore Lord of the Flies, which I´ve taught, with some breaks, for over a decade).
Swindells is unforgiving in his stark portrayal of human nature and the failings of the human race. Echoes of the brutality of survival have travelled onwards and forwards to contemporary post apocalyptic novels such as The Road by Cormac McCarthy. If you enjoyed The Road, it´s interesting to see what Swindells was doing in this genre so many years ago.
Fears of nuclear holocaust seem to have subsided since my teenage years (when this book was published) and some elements from the very beginning of the book do set it in a particular time and place. Nonetheless, the cruelty of man and the hope in love are timeless themes. They reach a sad and quiet conclusion in the book, “not with a bang but with a whimper”, this is a quality I admire in Swindells, he doesn´t soften the edges for his teenage audience and there is little hope of a happy end. The bitter reality is shared.
The story follows the grim reality of life for Danny, the young protagonist. He meets adulthood and responsibility, moral dilemmas and the reality of horrific death in the early stages of the book. A gradual breakdown follows, both of his society and the people around him. There is some hope in the shape of Branwell´s farm and the community values it encompasses, but it is tentative.
Danny is a likeable young man, trying to do the right thing for himself and his brother. There are elements of a hero´s journey in the novel, with Danny’s quest being for his own survival with some mentors along the way and a brief light of hope and love. The story crackles along at a great pace, with the reader desperate to find some hope of survival. Like Danny, we are perpetually waiting for ´The Authorities´ to come along and make everything alright again. Needless to say, it doesn´t quite happen like that.
It´s a great, quick read. Remember it´s a children´s book, so if you don´t like teenage fiction - avoid - there will be grown up post apocalyptic novels reviewed too. If you´re a teacher, it´s worth a read just for Swindells’ great portrayal of what happens to P.E teachers post apocalypse (it has to be remembered that Swindells trained as a teacher before becoming a writer, so the portrayal must be accurate!)
Post Script: My husband (the pedantic historian) says that the title post apocalyptic novel is an anachronism, or was that an oxymoron…because if it were post apocalyptic, there wouldn't be anyone around as it would have been an apocalypse....he's being a pain in the backside and deliberately so, to provoke a response. I suppose the fascination with post apocalypse is would we be capable of surviving? If we did would we be able to create a better society? Swindells, Atwood, McCarthy and Philip K Dick all explore that theme, with wonderful results. Although the nuclear holocaust scenario may no longer be at the forefront of our everyday concerns, there are still preoccupations with global climate change, War, cloning and its consequences, scientific experimentation, peak oil and the ultimate demise of man. Great civilisations have risen and declined, we have not always learnt the lessons of history. Perhaps the fascination with post apocalyptic novels is to do with wanting to change for the better and wondering if humanity can ever achieve it...