Saturday, April 11, 2015

Not Getting It

Teaching in the UK back in the 70s and 80s you quickly picked up on the titles of those novels for younger readers that went well in the classroom. One title that was brought frequently to my attention was Robert O'Brien's Z For Zachariah. Numerous schools seemed to use it with older classes as a classroom reader and I heard any number of teachers refer to it with enthusiasm. For some reason I never read it, possibly because I wasn't terribly interested in the kind of post-nuclear war setting I knew the writer employed, possibly because I'd read his novel for younger readers, Mrs Frisby and the Rats from NIMH and hadn't been impressed. Somewhere along the way, though, I picked up a paperback copy, presumably meaning to read it. I know this because I found a copy in the books I stored over there for quite a few years before arranging their transfer to KL. Even then I couldn't summon the enthusiasm to read the book, until last week, that is.

And now I think I know why it took me so long to read it. Some intuition was correctly telling me that it really isn't much good. Goodness knows how it achieved whatever vogue it did in its time - to the point, by the way, of being adapted as a Play For Today by the BBC and receiving a glowing review from the usually perspicacious Peter Ackroyd. The whole post-nuclear thing is entirely unconvincing. The idea of the girl narrator being left alone in her mysteriously unaffected valley just doesn't work and neither does the frankly silly stuff about the guy owning the only suit available giving protection from the surrounding radiation. The rendering of the action through the girl's diary is ponderous in the extreme and her voice never rings true for a moment. The last fifty pages or so, in which the guy emerges as the villain of the piece, are the only ones in which the narrative has any momentum, but he's a poor idea of a villain, being such a grey character. And, I suppose, that lies at the heart of what bothers me about the novel and the style in which it's written: it's all so flat and lacking in vigour.

I suppose I should be pleased that so many readers have disagreed with me, and it's nice to know that reading the book has been a rewarding experience for quite a number. But, frankly, I'm very puzzled as to why this has been so.

No comments: