Firstly, the classic
The Chrysalids ~ John Wyndham
I first read this when I was a teenager. I had always had a longing to be telepathic, so this book resonated with me. I reread it quite a few years later and while I still enjoyed the telepathy aspect, I was fascinated with the post-nuclear society that Wyndham creates. But let me tell you about the plot, before I go on about what I enjoyed reading in it this time.
David, the narrator, is a teenager, growing up in a post~apocalypse world. The devastating event happened hundreds of years ago, so the rigid society David lives in has developed strong laws about deviations away from the norm. The norm is based upon the Bible, the only book to have survived. (Why is it always the Bible? Why not The Origin of the Species or an Agatha Christie novel?! 🙂 ) Deviant crops are burnt and animals slaughtered. Babies are checked at birth. Any deviations and the baby is sent to the Fringes, an area between the ‘civilised’ world and the Badlands.
David has first hand experience of this when, as a young boy, he makes friends with Sophie. Sophie has grown up with her parents, away from mainstream society. She has six toes. Events happen that cause the family to flee to the Fringes and David sees how dangerous deviations can be.
Because while his physical body is normal, he is a telepath, able to send mind pictures to a group of others in the area. The group was safe until the birth of David’s sister, Petra. She was a very powerful sender, which lead to their unmasking as well as their rescue.
The copy I read this time had an introduction (sorry, I have forgotten who wrote it). The Chrysalids was written in Britain in the 1950s and this introduction placed the story into the social context of that time. There were still resonances in Britain from the Second World War ~ effects of rationing, the destruction of industries, the loss of the empire. It was interesting to reread it with that in mind.
However the most potent influence on Wyndham seems to have been the nuclear issue. The atom bomb had been dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, causing outrage and concern about a nuclear future. Fears were heightened by the impact of the Cold War. It became the dominating theme in The Chrysalids.
As for the writing….It must be a difficult task to write in the first person, especially when describing a new world. The narrator can only tell what he/she knows. Wyndham is able to build up our understanding of the society David lives in with a lightness of touch.
For example, David overhears a conversation between his mother and her sister. The sister has given birth to a baby with a defect, and is asking for help from David’s mother. The defect is not spelt out. From this incident we learn about how babies with deformities, and their mothers (but of course not fathers) are dealt with. David’s mother and father are fleshed out and it allows David’s compassion and growing concern to come through.
However, Wyndham’s writing does become more ponderous when he fills the reader in on the Badlands, a world that David could not know about. David’s sympathetic uncle has been a sailor, and travelled past these areas, with all their grotesque plants and devastation. He tells David what these areas are like, but it comes across more as a lecture than a conversation.
And the ending is literally the God-In-The-Machine technique, which was sort of annoying. But it did give the novel hope, which, given the horror of the world that Wyndham created, was a relief.
The Cartographer ~ Peter Twohig
This is also narrated by a young boy of about 11, who is growing up in the 1950s in the working class Melbourne suburb of Richmond. We never know his name. The only clue is that it starts with T. He assumes different personas, the Outlaw, the Train driver but mostly, the Cartographer.
He is still reeling from the accidental death of his twin brother Tom. The underlying story in the novel is the narrator coming to terms with his guilt; he tried to help, but could not save Tom. He reinvents himself as a superhero, who would have been able to rescue his brother.
He takes on the persona of the Cartographer as he makes a map of his journeys around Richmond. The map is meant to protect him from dangerous places, such as the playground where Tom died. It doesn’t work, because he finds danger everywhere he goes. But then he goes into some pretty amazing places. Backyards and lane ways are only some of them. Down drains, along train tunnels, into houses, even ending up in the cellars underneath Government House.
In the early chapters he climbs a ladder and witnesses a murder in the upstairs room. He confronts a kidnapper down one tunnel and, while creeping through a house, watches an ugly confrontation between a mother and child.
It sounds rather grim, and you watch the boy with amazement as he dives down another drain or investigates another house. But somehow it is quite a funny novel. The boy’s relationship with his dog, Biscuit, is gently amusing. He has a great relationship with his grandfather, a shady character who knows which horse will win and when something will fall off the back of a truck. His grandfather is one of the few stable influences in the boy’s life and Grandad helps to sort out some of the mayhem that coalesces around him.
The boy is an engaging character. He doesn’t quite take himself seriously. He is resilient, intelligent and such a risk taker that you worry for him. There were times when I thought “Oh no, not another drain”. But then who knew that there were so many dodgy characters down in that subterranean world! It reminded me of Extremely loud and incredibly close by Jonathan Safran Foer although this book is less sentimental and not as quirky.
And now to the gardeners:
The brother gardeners: Botany, empire and the birth of an obsession ~ Andrea Wulf
This fabulously researched book explores the identities of the men who “made Britain a nation of gardeners and the epicentre of horticultural and botanical expertise.” Wulf wanted to answer the question of why the English garden had its roots in America. While her book talks about a number of interesting characters, such as Daniel Solander, Linnaeus’ apprentice who later worked with Joseph Banks, it is Peter Collinson and John Bartram who are the central characters.
In the mid 1700s Collinson was a wealthy English merchant who had a passion for gardening. Collinson asked his overseas contacts to send him seeds and cuttings for his garden, but it was his developing friendship with Bartram that would be the most productive. Bartram was an American farmer who went on extensive seed collecting trips through the still wild parts of America. He sent Collinson the seeds and cuttings he had collected. Over time many boxes of seeds were sent to Collinson and his friends. They were paid for by subscription. Collison sent back books on botany and natural history so that Bartram could build up his library.
American plants had become very fashionable after Mark Catesby’s return from Virginia and Carolina. He published a book of engravings of his plant paintings and the British fell in love with his magnolias, wisteria and callicarpa. Bartram’s seeds would eventually allow grand landscapes to be planted with native birches, American sycamores, rhododendrons and many more.
Until Bartram began sending his boxes, autumn in England had been a fairly lacklustre affair. Now the falling of leaves was preceded by an extraordinary show. At Thorndon scarlet oak and white ash competed with the bloodied foliage of tupelo, and the glowing reds and oranges of the large fluttering maple leaves with the aubergine of liquidambar.
It is a fascinating time in history. There was an explosion of unknown plants and animals coming into European consciousness. Many of these new discoveries were to the detriment of the native peoples around the world and often fuelled imperialist desires. However, scientific theory was also expanding to make sense of all the new knowledge. Carl Linnaeus, for example, created the binomial nomenclature to enable uniform species identification. Wulf’s book has some interesting insights into the cranky arrogance of Linnaeus.
It was a good read, fleshing out aspects of that time. I had read about Bartram’s expeditions, especially those with his son. However I didn’t know of his importance to modern gardens, and I was interested to read about the British gardeners.
What have you been reading? Anything that you think I might like? As you can see, my tastes are very broad. Let me know. 😀