Last week I read a book in a week, which seems no small feat but it did involve a week of 3AM reading sessions. This, I feel, sums up how good I found One by Conrad Williams to be.
A post-apocalyptic survival story set in a UK devastated by a cataclysm known only as The Event, One follows undersea diver Richard Jane who survives the initial catastrophe by sheer luck of working undersea on an oil rig but who soon discovers that something terrible has befallen his country and perhaps the world itself. One is structured in two parts: the first which focuses on the immediate beginnings of Jane’s quest to figure out quite what happened and see the scale of the destruction while embarking on a long journey to find his estranged wife and son; the second picks up ten years later as Jane, along with a band of survivors known as the Shaded, try to survive in an increasingly-hostile environment. It’s a story of ordinary people trying to survive in extraordinary circumstances, and this always elicits the best the post-apocalyptic genre can deliver.
The introduction to the characters is something different to the usual post-apocalyptic tropes; quickly the sense of isolation and loneliness is built up, almost foreboding on what is to come. In escaping the event, Jane doesn’t want to face this non-future alone but spends the rest of the book doing just that, in one way or another. Also, despite the dearth of living people in the universe of One, it is silly to count these characters as infallible and invincible. Some of the more ancillary characters almost, for want of a better word, “deserve” it but there’s a notable number whose suffering the reader truly feels.
The descriptive writing in One is haunting but beautifully bleak. Towns are destroyed, the dead laying as heaps that don’t decompose. Roads and their traffic lay smashed. Life is simply frozen by the Event, never to resume. The nature of The Event is alluded to by several characters but the concrete truth is never explicitly stated; nor does it need to be. It happened, and that’s enough. It created the world in which the characters we meet have to function and exist in. Not knowing the exact nature of the calamity that befalls the UK (at the very least) is offset by the sheer mental imagery of a destroyed landscape and society painted by the author. It’s refreshing to see just the aftermath of the Event, not the actual moment itself which leaves plenty of room for the reader to conjure up their own image of what happened immediately prior to the book.
In the second part of the book, the narrative takes an abrupt and almost disorienting change of course, but as I persevered I realised what had happened. There’s a more supernatural and horrific bent to the second part, where the “zombies” of the piece really come into play. The strange dust that coats the destroyed landscape slowly turns those who survive into carnivorous shells known as Skinners who seek to feast on the last of the living. There seems to be a genuinely original take here in the origin of the zombies and their behaviour, which leads to a few gruesome and truly upsetting plot turns. Indeed, by Part Two, the initially-benevolent quest of Richard Jane to find his young son has turned into an obsession that threatens to consume the man, the glimmer of hope that he holds dear turning, with the rest of the world in which the book takes place in, into a corrupted nightmare. This is a flawed character who is either coping with the situation he finds himself in or kidding himself; the reader decides the extent of the madness or obsession. Truly, the ending hit me; I wanted an optimistic ending, knowing logically how unlikely it was but being surprised in how the thread of one man’s quest to find his son concludes. It’s a very thought-provoking and deep story infused with sadness that I thoroughly enjoyed, despite it’s absolute wanton lack of anything to be happy about. It’s almost refreshingly grim, maybe subconsciously evoking a sense of comfort in thinking that however hard “real life” is, it’s nothing like this.
My friend Si described One as an “epic, Fallout-esque post-apocalyptic tale” and I can definitely see the resemblance to those amazing games; the Skinners being analogous to the Ghouls of Fallout and Richard Jane as the Vault Dweller, though any more direct comparison would be unfair on One as it takes its own direction. As my first book by Conrad Williams it’s left me impressed and hungry for more. Such vivid and compelling writing surely deserves further exploration – I’m sure I’ll not regret it!
Rating: 5 *
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