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Book Review : The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Thursday, 25 June 2009

This is a marvellous book.

It is, on the surface, a simple tale. A man and a boy travel along a road in a post-apocalyptic world. It is never spelled out precisely what has caused the devastation, but everything is burned, ruined and relentlessly bleak. The two characters struggle slowly forwards : starving and filthy, in constant fear of the “bad people” who would take all their belongings and, most likely, kill them for food.

The prose style is fragmentary; the text is divided into small snapshots that, while they do lead on from one another, could each almost be a self-contained piece of prose-poetry or flash fiction. The writing style is sparse and matter-of-fact. There are few characters and few descriptions of the charaters that there are. In fact McCarthy more or less ignores many of the writing-advice rules on how a book “should” be written. Hurrah for that.

He also ignores many of the rules of grammar too. He doesn’t use quotation marks for reported speech. His use of apostrophes is strangely patchy. He always writes “cant” for “can’t” but then will write “he’ll”. Whether there is some deeper significance to this I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s to do with how the old order and rules have broken down. It certainly had the effect of grating constantly on a grammar-fascist such as myself ...

But. If all this makes the book sounds like it's hard-going then fear not. It is in fact a completely compelling read. The temptation to read just one more paragraph/snapshot is constantly irresistable. Each becomes like another footstep on the journey the two are taking. The effect is hypnotic and once you become acclimatized to the approach, you simply don’t notice it.

The story is a wonderful evocation of the love and devotion that exists between man and boy. The two of them spring from the page, their tender relationship in the face of all the horrors very powerful. The story is told completely from the man’s perspective – apart from one moving passage towards the end - but McCarthy suggests an enormous amount of insight into the boy’s mind with the simplest of words, such as the repeated exchages of “Okay? Okay.”

As I writer, one of the things I took from the book was an understanding of how successful a complete commitment to a singular, even unpromising vision can be. As I say, there are few characters and little plot here, and a writer with less self-belief would surely have been tempted to give up on the idea as too short or too shallow at an early stage. But it is in the realisation of the events in the story; the concrete details and the desperate actions of the man and the boy that make the book so successful. The writer's commitment to his vision makes the book work.

Overall, then, a very highly recommended book. What’s more, just to annoy those who “only read proper fiction”, I think this wonderfully literary work pretty clearly qualifies as SF too …


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