Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Coming of age at the end of the world

The Wall By the end of the first page of John Lanchester's book, you know that the eponymous Wall is cold. So one could be forgiven for finding it a bit tedious to continue reading about the cold, the concrete, the sea and sky well into chapter two.

The story is narrated by Kavanagh, a new Defender on a two-year posting at the Wall. His mission is to keep the Others from climbing over it. If his unit fails to keep them out, then Kavanagh himself may be banished and cast adrift into the ocean.

Kavanagh is the only character that we really get to know, although we meet several of his co-Defenders: Hifa, Shoona, Hughes, and the ex-Other Captain. None of these really have any depth, but that's probably a fault of Kavanagh, who seems like a teen who has little insight or interest in the Change that brought the world into its apocalyptic state. He has no thoughts for his future either, other than "to get as much education as I could, to get a job where I made lots of money, and to become a member of the elite." Kavanagh admits this was "too vague to count as a plan."

As a post-apocalyptic story The Wall is less satisfying than books such as The Death of Grass by John Christopher, The Road by Cormac McCarthy and On the Beach by Nevil Shute. It feels cliched and says nothing new. But perhaps Kavanagh and his rather emotionless narrative is in fact the book's saving grace? Perhaps this is a "coming of age" tale, a story of how a bunch of privileged 18-19 year olds discover comradeship and trust, find out how to take responsibility and realise what they must do to survive?

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