Monday, 19 September 2011

Carrying the fire

Across a bleak and barren landscape a man and his son journey south to the sea in an attempt to flee the winter’s cold.  They march on through the rain, over the ash-covered streets and fields, pushing a supermarket cart with all of their belongings – a tarpaulin, blanket, some canned goods.

An unnamed event has destroyed civilisation and only a handful of survivors remain. While some are nomadic ‘good guys’ with no intention of harming others, there are also tribes of cannibals scavenging the desolate land for food in any form.

The man and his son rely on each other. The father is unwell and fears for the boy. He gives him a revolver with one round in it and tells the boy to use it on himself if he is about to be captured. As they make their way toward the sea, the man tries to impart as many life lessons as he can upon his son.

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) is an extraordinary novel of post-apocalyptic life. It is a brilliant page-turner, poetic in its prose.  Told in short staccato sentences, The Road is atmospheric and vivid. With few words McCarthy creates this world. By cutting out excess verbiage he strips the story down to its roots allowing the reader to fill in the gaps. The themes that underpin the story - good and evil, love and hate, life and death – are captured in the man’s teachings to his son. They are the ‘good guys’, the ones ‘carrying the fire’. The hope of the whole world is in the boy.

McCarthy is my favourite contemporary author and The Road is among my most loved as he writes with such mastery – saying so much with so few words. Confronting and moving, I could not put it down and read it in one sitting. I felt so emotionally connected to the story, to the bond between the father and his son, that for days and weeks afterwards I thought of them and their predicament. Despite the bleakness of the subject matter, ultimately it is a story of hope and love.

The Road was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2007 and was adapted into an excellent film in 2009 starring Viggo Mortensen as the father and Kodi Smit-McPhee as the boy.  I recommend reading the book before seeing the film so as to appreciate McCarthy’s words and to allow you to imagine the world he created without the influence of the film.