Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 208 pages; 2009.
How I do love a good dystopian novel. I seem to have read a string of them of late, including two in the past month: Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steven Amsterdam and Red Queen by H. M. Brown. I picked up The Death of Grass by John Christopher on the strength of Gaskella’s excellent review, although I had previously seen John Self’s review last year and been impressed enough to go out and buy my own copy.
The story is one of those bleak narratives hugely reminiscent of The Road by Cormac McCarthy, although the original publication of this one precedes McCarthy’s by about half-a-century: The Death of Grass was first published in 1956.
But unlike McCarthy’s novel, which opens in a post-apocalyptic world and never explains how the end of civilisation occurred, Christopher’s novel begins in relative normality and then shows how a virus sweeping the world’s production crops finally arrives on British shores, with devastating consequences.
In the beginning our protagonist, John Constance, is happily married to Ann, has two children, Mary and Davey, and lives a rather comfortable life in suburban London. John’s best friend is Roger Buckley, who is married to Olivia and has a young son.
The two families socialise together and spend their weekends in a caravan by the seaside. They go about their lives without being too distracted by the Chung-Li virus, which has already wiped out rice crops in China, causing the death of 200 million people. But then things get decidedly worse…
As autumn settled into winter, the news from the East steadily worsened. First India, then Burma and Indo-China relapsed into famine and barbarism. Japan and the eastern states of the Soviet Union went shortly afterwards, and Pakistan erupted into a desperate wave of Western conquest which, composed though it was of starving and unarmed vagabonds, reached into Turkey before it was halted.
For quite some time Britain remains relatively unaffected, although “cakes disappeared in England, but bread was still available to all”. And then Roger drops his bombshell: as PR officer to the Ministry of Production he’s discovered an alarming secret — the British Government has been lying to the people, famine is just around the corner and their solution is to drop a series of devastating atom bombs on all the major cities to kill the population before 54 million people die from starvation.
Oh yes, it all gets a bit sinister from now on in. And I must admit by the time I’d reached this part of the book, I really didn’t want to put it down. How would John, Roger and their families get out of this rotten mess?
Their solution is to take to the road and head north to a farm, owned by John’s younger brother, in a secluded and defensible valley somewhere beyond the Pennines. But they have to hurry, as transport out of London is due to be banned and road closures are imminent. They take precautions by arming themselves with weapons bought from a central London gunshop and end up taking the owner of that gunshop, the calm but somewhat ruthless Pirrie, with them.
The book then becomes a cross between a wild Western, complete with gun-slinging shoot-outs, a road journey and a boys’ own adventure story. The narrative rips along at a fair old pace — and it has to, because the book is just 208 pages long. But, sadly, this is at the expense of proper characterisation and quite a few holes in the plot. Occasionally, thinking I’d missed something, I went back and re-read certain sections only to discover that, well, I hadn’t missed a thing — Christopher simply hadn’t bothered with the detail.
Interestingly, the best bit is seeing how quickly the veil of civilisation slips from all the main characters, who find themselves doing all kinds of illegal and immoral things before they’ve even left the city. The further they get out of London the worse it gets. (For this reason, the book invites comparisons with William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, as Robert MacFarlane points out in the introduction to this edition, because it shows “how close to the surface darkness lurks in any given group”.)
Admittedly I found The Death of Grass a genuinely thrilling and often frightening read. But it was much more violent than I expected and most of the narrative comprises a series of gun fights, which is fine if you like that sort of thing, but a bit wearisome if you don’t. It’s probably not everyone’s cup of tea, but I’m grateful to have read it and just pray Christopher’s vision of a world brought to its knees by a deadly environmental virus remains firmly in the realms of fiction…