Friday, July 6, 2012

Top ten cozy catastrophes

Jane Rogers's books include Her Living Image (winner of the Somerset Maugham Award), Mr. Wroe’s Virgins (a Guardian Fiction Prize runner-up), Promised Lands (winner of the Writers’ Guild Award for Best Fiction Book), Island (longlisted for the Orange Prize), The Voyage Home, and The Testament of Jessie Lamb.

For the Guardian, she named a top ten list of books "where the safe, happy world as we know it comes to grief." One title on the list:
The Death of Grass by John Christopher, 1956

An ecological catastrophe: grass dies. All the grasses – not just fields and lawns, but rice, wheat, barley and so on. The novel opens with this problem safely remote, in the far east, causing starvation among the Chinese. But soon enough the virus spreads to Britain, and society starts cracking up. John Custance and his family and friends – a cosily middle-class group – receive inside information and decide to head for Cumbria, where his brother has a farm in a defensible valley and they can grow potatoes. The brother is the one who understands man's responsibility for the disaster: "For years now, we've treated the land as through it were a piggy bank, to be raided, and the land, after all, is life itself."

The veneer of civilisation falls away very fast. Custance starts by murdering a soldier at a roadblock, and kills numerous others en route, including an innocent farmer's wife, shot at point blank range, and his own brother, who has offered him shelter. In their rapid descent into murderousness, Christopher's characters are a lot less cosy than Wyndham's. This novel feels very rooted in war, demonstrating with chilling forthrightness that decency and moral scruples are swiftly dispensed with in a struggle for survival. If someone stands in your way, kill him. Our hero does survive, with his wife and daughter, and at the end they are about to try to start living in the old, decent way again. But Christopher has painted a bleak enough picture of their fall from grace to suggest that no happy ending is likely.
Read about the other books on the list.

--Marshal Zeringue