Sunday, 3 February 2013

The Death of Grass - book review

I have to admit to only having had a vague idea of The Death of Grass until I came across it online. It sounded interesting and I've always liked a decent tale of the apocalypse so I gave it a go.

A brief rundown of the plot is that a virus is working its way around the world and destroying all grasses as it goes. This has a knock on effect of destroying much of our food stocks, leading to global panic, famine and chaos. In the middle of this, John Custance takes his wife, their two children and his friend Roger (as well as Roger's small family) across country to his brother's farm which can be fortified against the millions of hungry people who will do anything to survive.

The most interesting part of the story is Custance's change from `normal' civilised man to the leader of a growing group of desperate people. By a certain point, all of Custance's actions are for the good of the group; any aspect of life before the virus is long gone. This gets rid of the idea that the English are somehow better, more moral and more organised than the rest of the world and the author seems to enjoy shoving this idea far away while contrasting it with the early scenes of casual racism towards the behaviour of other nationalities in how they deal with the virus before it reaches Britain. In the same way that the children in Lord of the Flies lose their supposed British decency and become the savages mocked by the British, Custance does the same. Killing for food, kidnap of the child of the murder victims and subsequent forced marriage of the child to a member of Custance's party, leaving a school full of children to certain death - Custance sanctions this and more quite easily. And that's part of the problem for me. The descent not only happens quickly (although I can understand given the desperate situation) but without much thought or debate. Unless the author's intention was to show that we are capable of these actions with very little warning, it all seems too rushed. Another problem is how the author treats the female characters. Scenes from their viewpoints would have given the story much more balance and a more interesting angle. As it is, they exist to either flirt with Custance, be raped, make food and put the kettle on. A viewpoint of its time or simply a flaw in the novel?

The Death of Grass is definitely worth reading and is definitely entertaining. I wouldn't go as far as to call it a classic along the lines of Lord of the Flies, but it's a great piece of British writing that gives a very British view of the end of how some of us still see ourselves.

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