Friday, May 28, 2010

Book Review: The Road *Possible Spoilers*

Have you ever been caught by one of those 'three for two' offers in shops? There are maybe two things you want to buy, but want to take advantage of the free thing as well - after all, if they're giving it for free you might as well. Recently, that was my experience in Eason's - having bought some presents, I had the third book to get free and couldn't really see anything I wanted. Then I spotted The Road by Cormac McCarthy and remembered it had been made into a movie, so went for it.

The critics are raving about it - the praise without and within is fullsome, the tributes great, but really, I'm not sure that I totally agree. Certainly, the story remains with you long after you've finished reading, but as a modern classic, I'm just not sure.

The setting is America, but not as we know it. It seems to be some sort of post-apocalyptic nightmare, but we're never actually told what has happened to cause such wholesale devastation. Rather, we're constantly reminded about the bleak grey and ash which is the total landscape - made me think of the volcanic island of Lanzarote. Yet whatever has happened, there are quite a few houses still standing, the remains of cities, and a blistered road leading to the south, where things will hopefully be warmer and better.

The two main characters are never named - simply the man and the boy, father and son. The father is seeking to bring the boy to safety, to the sea coast, and the whole narrative is presented in short bursts of paragraphs, a series of vignettes and scenes as they journey on, facing danger from other survivors, while their relationship continues to develop through the trials and tribulations.

While mentioning the style, in short vignettes and bitty paragraphs, it did take a while to get used to the writing style. Throughout, alongside the paragraphs, there are no speech marks, and no apostrophes - perhaps they too have perished in the worldwide catastrophe. So occasionally I found it hard to keep up with who was speaking, whether the man, the boy, or some of the other minor characters.

In particular, the writing style caused one major confusion on page 209, about two-thirds the way through the book. There, you find a short paragraph as follows:

Do you think that your fathers are watching? That they weigh you in their ledgerbook? Against what? There is no book and your fathers are dead in the ground.

No indication of who is speaking, or whether it is the thought of the man, or whether it is the comment of the narrator. What it does indicate, though, is the profound sense of bleakness and hopelessness which pervades the book. From the woman, who sees death as a lover, to the old man who looks forward to when everyone on earth has died: 'When we're all gone at last then therell be nobody here but death and his days will be numbered too.' Just a few pages before, this same old man cries out that 'There is no God and we are his prophets.'

In such bleakness, with theological overtones or undertones (or both}, the novel leaves more questions than it answers. Has what has happened been seen as some divine punishment? Is it (as some critics think) that it's set in a post-globally warmed disaster where the earth has warmed so much than most of human, animal and plant life has died off? While that declaration that there is no God and we are his prophets rings loud, the man wonders if the boy is a god.

As it turns out, this suggestion comes to fruition at the very disappointing and confusing ending. (Spoiler may appear if you're intending to read the book). The father has sacrificed himself through the long journey along the road so that his son is brought to be found by a family who take him in (unbeknownst to the father who has died just before he finds them). And almost the very last paragraph of the book contains these words:

The woman when she saw him put her arms around him and held him. Oh, she said, I am so glad to see you. She would talk to him sometimes about God. He tried to talk to God but the best thing was to talk to his father and he did talk to him and he didnt forget. The woman said that the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time.

Oh dear oh! Throughout we've had despair and hopelessness, and now we've landed in panentheism at the very end of the novel. It's certainly a twist, an unexpected conclusion, but not one that I'm in favour of. As I've already said, the rest of the book raised enough questions (to do with the unfolding plot), and the ending raises yet another huge question, to the extent that I'm not sure that I could recommend the book to anyone!

In conclusion, The Road is a haunting, bleak book set in extraordinary times, which will long linger in the memory. However it can be difficult to read due to the style issues, and doesn't really reach a full and final conclusion. Interesting, but perhaps slightly weird. Maybe that's why the critics like it so much...

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