I didn’t know anything about The Road before I read it as I had no prior knowledge of the book nor the film starring Viggo Mortensen. I saw the book at a thrift store and saw the words “WINNER OF THE PULITZER PRIZE”, and thought “I’ve never read anything by Cormac McCarthy before”. It was dispatched to my trolley shortly afterwards.
Bitter experience has taught me that prize-winning books do not necessarily mean that they will be a good read that I will enjoy like The Famished Road by Ben Okri, a Booker prize winner. Blimey, that was hard work and I am sorry to say, unfinished.
Anyway, with that in mind, I embarked on The Road with an open mind with maybe, if I’m honest, a soupçon of wariness and found it to be a very powerful read indeed.
It tells the story of a man and a boy, a father and son – you never get to know their names – who are on a journey south, to the sea in a world that has become hostile and threatening. You see things mainly from the viewpoint of the father as he attempts to provide for his son in the blackened remnants of a world which does not have a lot left to give.
It is a dark place and the father is keen to keep moving, the fear of staying in one place and being discovered driving him forward, forever forward and giving their existence a purpose. Ash fills the sky and the sun is never able to penetrate. The earth is literally scorched: burnt tree stumps and melting tarmac are the landmarks that litter the landscape they are attempting to traverse, a world in which they need to remain undetected. There are no animals, no birds, nothing.
That being said, they are not alone in this world as they encounter other humans along the way: ragged people or predators, one of the two and difficult to distinguish one from the other. The path they take is an intermittent graveyard as they come across the people who once inhabited the land but who have wasted away, been burnt or worse.
This is a very dark book. There is the very worst of humanity here and McCarthy’s style is such that he describes it without embellishment and it is all the more stark and shocking for it. Having a child witness some of the atrocities which they inadvertently discover in their bid for survival and their hunt for provisions is thought-provoking and as a mother, this book constantly made me ask what I would do if placed in this situation, God forbid.
How do you support your child when they have seen horrific things? How do you maintain hope in a world which blatantly lacks it? How do you keep your son, your future buoyed but also get him to see that the world in which he lives is deadly, dangerous and something to fear? How do you do this when you know that you could die and that he will have to continue without you? How do you maintain a mental equilibrium when so much is uncertain – no food, no water, no life, no future?
Despite the subject matter, I did not find this a tough read. I found it compelling and harrowing but McCarthy shares some uplifting moments although they are few, usually involving finding small moments of comfort that are fleeting but welcome. One of the nicest moments in the book is when they swim together in a waterfall, despite the cold, the father keen for his son to have some glimmer of happiness in a world that has had it all burnt and harvested out of it.
And it is the willingness for them to succeed in their quest to reach the sea that makes you will them on, even though there is nothing redeeming in this world. Even the father, as a realist, is unable to allow compassion to skew his survival instinct, as he knows that his charity or generosity or lack of wariness could mean the death of his son and his son means everything to him. His son is all that he has left.
Every time they spot a new dwelling or enter a new town or the father tells the boy to “Stay put” while he does some exploring, an uneasy feeling entered my gut. There are a lot of tense moments like these throughout.
McCarthy does not dip much into life before the chaos and carnage in which they find themselves but there was a wife and a mother, alive at the start of the devastation of their world. What happens to her drives the philosophy of the father to an extent, providing him with the will to keep going, despite the odds.
I sincerely hope and pray that I never have to experience the depravity in this book. And I truly hope that I have not brought my children into a world where they could possibly witness the same. With the world as it is at the moment, with restrictions, fear, division and uncertainty, this book is perhaps not the most cheerful read for those of you that are feeling in low spirits, wondering if it is all going wrong but it may help you to get a perspective on how life is perhaps not all that bleak right now.
I am certainly glad for my tins of food, the rafters above my head instead of a tarp as well as heat and comfort. And not having to carry a gun at all times. The petty inconveniences of modern life pale as Cormac McCarthy’s book shows, it could be far, far worse.