As The Giver begins, the protagonist Jonas’ community seems almost perfect; its citizens are polite to a tee, are required to talk openly about their feelings to promote emotional well being and seem to be without a care in the world. Gradually more disturbing aspects of the society become apparent; citizens have very little choice over the direction their lives will take, at twelve they are assigned careers and later in life spouses. They do not give birth to their own children, but take medication to suppress their sexual urges and apply to The Committee to be allocated children, who are born by women given the role of Birthmothers. The children never meet their true mothers or know which other children have the same Birthmother as them. Each live with a sibling also not related to them by blood in their assigned family unit. Once children move out of their family homes the “parents” go and live with the Childless Adults and after that they live in The House of the Old, where the elderly are looked after, but also physically disciplined when naughty.
Despite all of this people are very content – the only complaint ever made is how hard it is to change any of the society’s rules. The source of this widespread happiness becomes clear when Jonas is chosen as the community’s new Receiver of Memory when he turns twelve and is allocated a career. The Receiver of Memory’s job is to hold all the memories of the past, spanning back prior to the establishment of the community, on the behalf of its citizens, bearing the burdensome pain of wisdom and knowledge of both the good and painful events of the past. The Receiver has this role so that when the community is faced by a problem The Committee can turn to him for advice in light of his knowledge of the past. The current Receiver, an elderly man, becomes The Giver when he begins to train Jonas in preparation for his lonely task and transmits memories to him.
Lowry’s simplistic and direct writing is perfect for younger readers, but despite using a stark style Lowry manages not to lose any of the story’s appeal to adults; it almost makes the dark themes more disturbing somehow to have them presented so simply.
I wish I’d had the time to post about Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates immediately after reading it because now, a month later, it’s nowhere near as fresh in my mind. At the beginning of the year I bought a copy after watching the movie left me in tatters, for months after that it sat untouched on my shelf because I knew it would be a heavy-going experience emotionally, so I was waiting for the right mood. I was right, it did turn out to be an oppressive and upsetting read. But it was definitely worth it, Yates’ writing is so beautifully crafted and he depicts the characters in such a realistic way, to the point that at times his descriptions are downright nasty.
The story revolves around the Wheelers’ tragic marriage in 1950s American suburbia. From the outside everything seems perfect; Frank is known for his cleverness, April is a beautiful housewife and together they have two young children; a boy and a girl. But they’ve both always assumed they were destined for great things and are bitter at the turns their lives have taken. They plot an escape to Paris to save themselves from a life of mediocrity, and from there things start to crumble for the Wheelers.
I’ve read a few reviews of the book and many readers seem to find all the characters completely repulsive and can’t empathise with them at all because of the abhorrent, selfish things they do. But to me they felt like real people and I can’t help but feel an incredible sympathy for them all, trapped by society, their choices and their own shortcomings and ultimately meeting a tragic end through attempting to change their lot in life. To me Revolutionary Road is a critique of 50s society; a study of a marriage and a warning against conventional gender roles and the importance of women having other options in life than getting married and starting a family. I finished it at midnight one night and felt so shaken by it I had to watch a few episodes of How I Met Your Mother in order to get to sleep. It really falls into the “books that wound and stab us” category Kafka so highly recommended.
Here are some of my favourite passages from the book:
“Our ability to measure and apportion time affords an almost endless source of comfort. ‘Synchronize watches at oh-six-hundred’, says the infantry captain, and each of his huddled lieutenants finds a respite from fear in the act of brining two tiny pointers into jewelled alignment while tons of heavy artillery go fluttering overhead: the prosaic, civilian looking dial of the watch has restored, however briefly, an illusion of personal control. Good, it counsels. Looking tidily up from the hairs and veins of each terribly vulnerable wrist; fine: so far, everything’s happening right on time.”
“I had this idea there was this whole world of marvelous golden people somewhere ahead of me as the seniors of Rye when I was in sixth grade; people who knew everything instinctively, who made their lives work out the way they wanted without even trying, who never had to make the best of a bad job because it never occurred to them to do anything less than perfectly the first time. Sort of heroic super-people, all of them beautiful and witty and calm and kind, and I always imagined that when I did find them I’d suddenly know that I belonged among them, that I was one of them, that I’d been meant to be one of them all along, and everything in the meantime had been a mistake; and they’d know it too. I’d be like the ugly duckling among the swans… It’s the most stupid, ruinous kind of self-deception there is, and it gets you into nothing but trouble.”
“Oh for a month or two, just for fun, it might be alright to play a game like that with a boy; but all these years! And all because, in a sentimentally lonely time long ago, she had found it easy and agreeable to believe whatever this one particular boy felt like saying, and to repay him for that pleasure by telling easy, agreeable lies of her own, until each was saying what they other one most wanted to hear – until he was saying “I love you” and she was saying “Really I mean it; you’re the most interesting person I’ve ever met.” What a subtle, treacherous thing it was to let yourself go that way!”
My mum and my sister have been telling me for years that I MUST read The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham. “Oh yeah? What’s that one about again?” I would ask, with one of them replying with something along the lines of “Well it’s about killer plants…” before quickly insisting that this didn’t mean it was silly. I finally picked The Triffids up in August and found myself totally captivated, finishing it in one day.
Killer plants are a large part of The Triffids, but it’s far more multifaceted than that. A supposed comet causes a spectacular light show, only to plummet the world into darkness; the intense light has left the majority of the population blind. The sightless stumble the streets in hysterics, desperate for food. At first many die in the ensuing violence, are killed in tragic accidents, like mistaking windows for doors, others, not willing to live in perpetual darkness, suicide. The seers and the blind that survive the first few days find themselves in perpetual danger from a new and unusual threat. Without the power of sight mankind is left at the mercy of the triffids, plants that were created via genetic engineering in Russia and prior to the disaster were harvested commercially across the globe for their oils. The triffids are not your average plants, they are about six-feet tall, able to hobble along on their roots, and are equipped with poisonous, whip-like stingers that lash out at high speeds and reach several feet. Once a triffid has stung it will sit by its victim for days as the body decays, digesting bits of rotting flesh. The novel follows Bill Masen, one of the few whose sight remains intact, and his struggle to survive.
The Triffids was first published in the ’50s, and true to its era it oozes heavy themes of Cold War paranoia. Not only are the Russians responsible for the creation of the triffids, but Masen reveals that prior to the disaster people were living in constant fear of weaponry satellites circling the earth, created as a part of the arms race: “It was by no means pleasant to realise that there was an unknown number of menaces up there over your head, quietly circling and circling until someone should arrange for them to drop – and there was nothing to be done about them. Still, life has to go on – and novelty is a wonderfully short-lived thing. One became used to the idea perforce.”
Despite the heavy contextual impact of the Cold War, The Triffids has stood the test of time because Wyndham’s story is one of human nature and survival; ageless themes contemporary authors continue to wrestle with. It has influenced post apocalyptic writers for the past five decades and as a result its traces can be seen in many modern works (The Happening, I Am Legend, The Handmaid’s Tale…). Wyndham might have been preoccupied with the events of the ‘50s, but he also managed to foreshadow modern concerns about genetic engineering and bio warfare, increasing the text’s longevity even further.
All of this aside, The Triffids is simply so well written. Wyndham paints a vivid, thrilling, disaster story that successfully walks the line between frightening and funny without ever becoming overwhelmingly dark; a fate many post-apocalyptic works often succumb to.
I’m dying to read more of Wyndham’s works, and next on my list is The Chrysalids, which, according to Wikipedia, some fans consider his finest work.