I was given this book as a gift and, I have to say, I’m very glad I received it because it’s not a book I would have chosen for myself. No, I would have passed it over on a shelf. However, it came with a healthy recommendation, so I felt obliged to read it.
The critics use some superlative language: “A magnificent piece of creative fiction” blurts one. “One of the finest of all post-holocaust novels” says another. So, I am here to tell you all what I thought of it.
The story begins with the protagonist, one Isherwood Williams, returning home from a trip into the wilderness. During the journey he is bitten by a venomous snake. Ironically, it is this venom which saves his life because at the same time, a curious disease sweeps the globe, wiping out virtually every human being. The venom from the bite appears to cancel out the effects of this plague, thus making him a rare survivor of what is forever afterwards referred to as The Great Disaster.
After some considerable period of time, he meets a woman called Em, a fellow survivor, and they set up home together in San Francisco. In time, they bear children and are joined by a few other survivors, creating The Tribe, and over the years, new generations of humans are born who have no recollection of what life was like before.
For a time, they live by looting convenience stores for tinned food. There are relatively few of them and since there is still running water in the taps, they remain in a group of houses high on a hill over looking the city and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Ish is the one who stands out as the intellectual mind of the group. Surviving this tragedy has not quenched his thirst for knowledge about how to continue civilisation – with books and learning. He even tries to engage the smaller children in an informal school environment with a view to teaching them how to read and write.
One day, however, the water trickles and stops running altogether. Now Ish is faced with finding a resolution to the more basic survival problems.
The author uses some beautiful language in this book. In the first few chapters especially, Ish is alone and therefore dialogue is minimal.
I could identify very much with the character of Isherwood. I myself have an ingrained desire for knowledge through books. One of the downsides of being clever at school was finding that my peers mostly lacked the knowledge I sought, so I came to rely on books for information instead.
Much of the book explores Ish’s frustration that other members of The Tribe, including his wife Em, do not share this academic aptitude. Rather, they seem content to maintain the status quo, changing something about themselves and their habits when it is deemed necessary instead of anticipating problems and planning for prevention or minimum impact.
As The Tribe continues to grow, and the generations expand and change, so too does the natural habitat around them. It’s at this point that the author illustrates the fragile balance of the Natural World so well.
In the early years, the rat population almost overwhelms Ish and Em as there are so few people left and much uneaten food about. Eventually though, their available food supplies dwindle, and the rats turn to cannibalism. The natural order of things is restored and they retreat into hiding once more.
All in all, this is an enormous story. It tackles some of the Big Ideas, touching on religion, philosophy, natural history and anthropology, all of which poor Ish tries to get his head around so he can pass it on to the future generations.
I did find it heavy going at times. If anything, I also found it rather long. However, I’m not sure it could be cut shorter without compromising the story as the prose is already pretty tight and succinct, and there are sections which the author glosses over, referred to as ‘The Quick Years’.
I was quite surprised to find I wasn’t particularly moved by this novel, despite the deaths of so many characters, but perhaps this is deliberate. Maybe primitive homo sapiens was more comfortable with death than we are, accepting it as an inevitability of the Cirle of Life.
Please read this book, by all means. It does not provide answers to the Big Questions of who and why we are, but it will certainly make you think.