The Death of Grass by John Christopher

The Death of Grass (front)_2The Death of Grass is one of the darkest, most wonderful novels I’ve read in a long time.

Written in 1956, it still feels very fresh – especially with the  news recently full of the horrendous flooding in the Somerset Levels (and the inefficiency of the government to deal with it) and the emergence of looters and petrol thieves. (It’s also interesting to note John Christopher lived in Somerset.)

 John Christopher  (one of the writing names of Sam Youd) has a cult following when really he should be much better known in the mainstream because The Death of Grass (later filmed as No Blade of Grass) is a story about the social, moral and political breakdown of society when the balance of the natural world is altered. Countries abandon support for other countries, billions of people die of starvation or are murdered or, the brainchild of the fictional UK government, are sacrificed. It reminds me of Margaret Atwood’s books and HG Well’s War of the Worlds.

A virus (Chun-Li) has developed in China and has wiped out all the rice. Food parcels are shipped to Asia at the beginning of the book but it doesn’t stop the slaughter and cannibalism that ensues (we get this in the first chapter so this isn’t a spoiler). The rest of the world looks on with a smug and openly racist smile on its global face: “There’s an awful lot of Chinks in China. They’ll breed ‘em back up again” says one character. But rice is a form of grass, oryza sativa, and so is wheat and barley, bamboo and pasture grasses and many other cereal crops – there are 11,000 different types of grass. And viruses mutate and evolve quicker than most of us can sneeze.

Many viruses have a built in lifespan (like common colds) and die down quickly after a range of phases. Not Chun-Li. This virus continues to evolve (and is aided by the counter-viruses thrown at it). When it evolves to attack the other grass-types the implications are far-reaching. Imagine a world without cows, deer, goats, rabbits – any of the grazers and browsers. No butter. No bread. No milk. No leather. No meat. I can’t help but make comparisons with what might happen if the bees die out through varroa and colony collapse.

The meat of this book isn’t what happens to the grass but what effect its total obliteration has on the people in the book. The story lays down a foundation biblical in its essence right from the word go – but you don’t realize it until close to the end, because it’s so contemporary in its telling. Over three days or so you watch likeable characters turn into Conrad-esque nightmares and arses turn into humane, if a bit spineless, human beings. The treatment of the women – strongly written characters – is horrendous and they’re reduced unnaturally quickly to chattels. And there’s one main character I wish I’d never met.

I can’t say much more without giving out any serious spoilers but something Roger, one of the main characters, says in chapter two keeps buzzing between my ears:

‘The thing all you adult, sensitive people must bear in mind is that things are on your side at present – you live in a world where everything’s in favour of being sensitive and civilized. But it’s a precarious business.’

Well that’s me – I’m adult and sensitive and civilized and I would truly hate to think what would happen to me as a person if anything drastic caused that to change. And Roger’s tight, it is a precarious business – even without Chun-Li.

 

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Stalker by Lucy Hamilton

 

Stalker by Lucy Hamilton Shearsman Books, 2012 ISBN: 978-1848612242

Stalker by Lucy Hamilton
Shearsman Books, 2012
ISBN: 978-1848612242

From the book cover: The insidious peril that haunts these pages appears in various guises [...] Stalker is a collection of prose poems in which the narrator attempts to make sense of everyday experience, turning to Rilke, Van Gogh, Steinbeck and others in her quest for understanding.

Stalker is Lucy Hamilton’s first full length collection, and it’s telling of her intellectual integrity and confidence as a writer that she chooses to launch her career for a wider readership (she’s already had a lot of success with her Hearing Eye pamphlet, Sonnets for my Mother, and her translations) with prose poems – not many contemporary poets would have the balls to do that.Sonnets_for_my_mother_lucy_hamilton

The poems in this book are at once both beautiful and ugly, disturbing and tranquil; and yet they are always elegant in the writer’s choice of exactly the right word, the right turn of a line, the right shift of tone or scene. Hamilton is a poet who knows when to hold a line and when to let it go – she understands the give and take of cadence, the control of brevity (and when to swell the scene a little), and how to make the lines work for the poem; her similes stand out for their freshness (without being irritatingly quirky, which much contemporary poetry is guilty of) and the ability to convey perfectly what the poems mean them to, e.g.:

`I find him stacked up in the archives, row upon row, layer upon layer, like a slice of the paupers’ graves.’ (`Clochard’)

– this still gives me a chill when I think of it, even though it was a while since I read it.

The space of the collection is far reaching – not just across the geographical locations of the book France, Germany, Scotland, Greece, America, and England – but how it traverses the space of the heart: love, fear, regret, anticipation, sorrow, and those moments of happiness that we all have an echo of in our own hearts.

If you buy only one poetry book this year, you can’t go far wrong with this one. That it was shortlisted for the Forward Prizes’ Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection in 2012 is not surprising (that it didn’t win it is!)

(a shorter version of this review appears on AmazonUK)
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Boneland – Alan Garner

Cover of Alan Garner's Boneland

Boneland by Alan Garner
Published: 2012, Fourth Estate.
ISBN: 978-0007463251

Boneland is the third book in the Wierdstone Trilogy, started over 50 years ago with The Weirdstone of Brisingamen.

Taking up the story decades on from the end of the second book, The Moon of Gomrath, it’s set in Cheshire (as the other books were) and (a huge treat for me) at Jodrell Bank Observatory – home of the beautiful Lovell telescope. It centres around the character of Colin, and his amnesia of the first 13 years of his life – including any knowledge of his twin sister, Susan, and the adventures they had.

Boneland isn’t a straightforward sequel – much time has passed between the stories and while Weirdstone and Gomrath were books marketed to children, this is definitely a book for adults. And all the more wonderful for being so! It continues the literary ambitions Garner first established in Red Shift, and executed so beautifully in Thursbitch and The Stone Book Quartet, and his later books. It’s a mature telling of a complex story that has developed over years, rather than a capping off of two books that, while being wonderful novels in themselves, had different ambitions for language and literature relevant to the times they were written in. They reflect something of the interests of the author back then, as Boneland does now.

When the book first came out the reviews were mixed; many people felt Garner should have produced a straightforward ‘Whatever happened to Susan?’ kind of book in the same vein as the first two – when we love something, we want it to continue – and I think I Weirdstone_of_Brisingamenwould have been happy with that, but I’m much, much happier with the book he did write. It’s a book for this reader – one who started reading fantasy because of Weirdstone and who has grown up in the intervening years with that first love of reading intact. It’s also a book that honours the development of a writer, and of an intelligent mind, and that is what calls to me – something numinous and important (a bit like the calls Colin hears in Boneland – although not as frightening!) and it’s something to go back to time and again.  It’s true Boneland is a book of confusions and wrong-footings on the first-reading – but so is most of Virginia Woolf’s oeuvre and T.S. Eliot’s.  Boneland is a book about excavation and exploration and looking for answers – if in Thursbitch Garner looked to the earth for answers, in Boneland he looks both to the earth (a common motif in Garner’s books) and to the night skies. And the way he makes Jodrell Bank a character rather than just a setting is just wonderful!

If you’re looking for a very easy science-fantasy read, then this is probably not the book for you, but if you want to get your teeth into something special then buy it, read it, then read it again.

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