Monday, 17 September 2012

Review: The Chrysalids

Look at this book, this book is amazing
Confession: I completely forgot I had even read this book. But then yesterday I was ill, and I realised that I absolutely had to read Hexwood by Diana Wynne Jones.

Please note that I have read this book approximately 30 times before, as I have everything Diana Wynne Jones has ever written. She is one of the main reasons why, whenever I hear someone say that they are (or worse, tell off a child for being) 'too old' for a particular book, I want to set myself on fire. There is NO SUCH THING IN THIS UNIVERSE as being too old for a book. Sure, you can be too young for a book (consider American Psycho before you tell me this is not so), but you can never, ever, ever be too old to read a book that you love. If you think you are, then you have gone sadly wrong in life.

Hexwood is a classic tale about knights, dragons, intergalactic travel, robots and a contract killer with a heart of gold, and it could take most of the stuff that is sold as 'teen fiction' these days and grind it under its blood-red cyborg boot. In it, main character Ann has grown up with four imaginary friends constantly chatting away inside her head, but as the story unfolds she begins to realise that these people might not be imaginary after all. When she asks them to stop behaving as though they're real, they're each shocked, because she's the one who's not real - and of course it then emerges that all five of them are living human beings with a special mental connection.

Anyway, I read that part and suddenly remembered that I finally know (or at least can strongly guess) where Diana Wynne Jones got that particular idea from: I'd read something just like it two weeks ago in John Wyndham's The Chrysalids.

Which is when I remembered that I'd read The Chrysalids. Oops. To be fair to me, I read it in two hours, on the train to London and then on the train back again, so I must have failed to register it as an event. But on the other hand (it's all coming back to me now) I loved it. I loved it more than anything else I've reviewed on here for months. During the two hours it took me to read it, I sent a series of over-excited capslocked texts to my boyfriend telling him that HE SHOULD READ THIS and EVERYONE SHOULD READ THIS and THERE SHOULD BE TEN SEQUELS TO THIS. Also (and most relevantly to this post so far) that I HAD FOUND THE BOOK THAT THE X-MEN CAME FROM.

I know I get really over-excited about literary influence (please see: my dissertation topic; countless other tinhatty rants), and I also know that it is impossible to second-guess the referential workings of the human subconscious, but I really struggle to see how a book first published in 1955 about people whose genetic mutations give them superpowers but also make them reviled by non-mutant society could NOT influence the content of the X-Men comics (first published 1963). The main characters are telepaths (they are all linked at the mind, hence the similarity to Hexwood), and that's really the only ability that's properly explored, but there's a fascinating background range of mutants who have incredibly long arms and webbed feet and so on, all just begging to be turned into superheroes. There is even a mutant described as 'the spider man' (to which I say: I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE, STAN LEE).

John Wyndham is an author I don't talk about much. For some mysterious reason potentially to do with mind control (he is a science fiction writer, after all) I can never seem to remember how highly I rate him until I pick up another one of his books, at which point I am amazed afresh at what an understated genius he is. Like all the best sci fi writers, he goes about the business of writing fantasy as though it was fact, taking a particular proposition (in this case: a nuclear event has resulted in extreme genetic mutation) and following it through to all its logical conclusions. The hyper-religious civilization he has imagined in The Chrysalids has laws, prohibitions, holy texts, sayings and subcultures, and it all seems not only plausible but disturbingly likely.

Set in underpopulated, post-apocalyptic fronteer land, The Chrysalids is the story of the early life of David Strorm, son of the district's most outspoken and fanantic critic of all things mutated. In his society, mutant crops or animals are known as 'deviations', and mutant humans are 'blasphemies', and their holy book says that thou shalt not suffer a deviation or blasphemy to live. David doesn't really question this until the day he meets a little girl who is extremely kind and nice but who has six toes on each of her feet. Not long after that, he discovers that his ability to talk to his cousin and some of his other friends in his head is not exactly normal, and not long after that he realises that if he isn't careful, his natural desire to live without fear of being killed or maimed might suffer a considerable setback.

The Chrysalids is such a simple, linear story, but its background is so beautifully thought out that the novel could have been twice as long (or three times, or four sequels) and still have been just as fascinating. At times, actually, I got frustrated at Wyndham for making up something so great, dipping his toe into it and then getting bored and wandering away. There's so much that isn't fully explained that you're left crazy for more detail. How is it fair that the Twilight saga is half a million dribblingly pointless words long when this piece of perfection is less than 150 pages?

Nevertheless, what is here is mind-bogglingly smart and self-assured, an out-of-left-field work of the imagination that reads like lived truth. I love John Wyndham, I loved this book and I want very badly to resurrect its author so I can get him to write another five of the same.

4.5 stars.

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