Thursday, 4 June 2009

One, by Conrad Williams

The superb movie-style cover of this book tells you all you need to know about the plot going in: a man walks to London through a devastated Britain. Despite the tagline – This is you. This is now. And your number is up. – the book isn’t written in the second person, which was a relief.

In the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, Peter Nicholls notes in the entry “Holocaust and After” that: “Many of the authors cited have not been closely associated with Genre SF. The post-holocaust theme, particularly in the UK, has had a strong attraction for mainstream writers…” Like those cosy catastrophes of the 1950s, One presents a very literary apocalypse. It’s not a novel concerned with investigating the problems and solving them – answers are thin on the ground – it’s about the feelings they engender and the relationships they rupture.

It’s written in fine style, with expressive touches of flair throughout, but at times this felt rather like a literary author doing his level best to write the most commercial novel possible – a widescreen horror novel – but partially thwarted by his own sensibilities. And so the novel is packed with interesting character moments and striking images, but frustratingly skips past much of the action. We’re never in any doubt as to exactly how Richard Jane feels, but we’re often left rather foggy about what’s actually going on. That makes sense, since Jane himself is often in that same situation, but it’s frustrating for the reader.

But then this isn’t really a book about the apocalypse – it’s a book about a father’s love for his son. Though that side of it had a lasting impact on me – I find myself saying no to my children much less since reading One – it did get a little bit dull. The author shows how difficult Jane’s obsession with his lost son is for other people to cope with, but he may have underestimated how tiresome it would become for readers: by the end of the book the reader comes to fear the mention of Stanley as much as any of the horrors of this nightmarish world.

As usual I’m complaining about minor problems rather than focusing on what was good. This was on the whole a thrilling book, and one I found hard to put down (not that I tried): I read the last 250 pages in more or less one go. I was at all times desperate to find out what would happen next (which probably explains my frustration when the novel slowed for an emotional bit). The apocalyptic opening was nothing short of brilliant, and if the subsequent long walk went on a bit, things really picked up in the second half, in ways I wouldn’t want to reveal in a review.

Overall, a fine novel, but just a bit too ruminatory and elliptical to be the effective mainstream entertainment I was hoping for. In post-apocalyptic movie terms I’d place it just ahead of Neil Marshall’s Doomsday, but just behind 28 Days Later.

One, Conrad Williams, Virgin Books, pb, 364pp.

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