You are currently browsing the monthly archive for January 2020.

A Wrinkle in the Skin by John Christopher (1965) 220 p.


(This is a very satisfyingly bad cover – the book takes place in England and the Channel Isles and has nothing to do with America. Bizarrely, this is from a British edition.)

A series of unprecedented earthquakes wreaks havoc across the globe, laying waste to Western Europe and leaving protagonist Matthew Cotter as one of the few survivors on the island of Guernsey, having fortuitously been outside in the middle of the night when the quake collapsed most structures. The earthquake has dramatically changed the landscape and drained the English Channel, and Matthew eventually resolves to trek north across the dry seabed to try to find his daughter in England.

It’s an original conceit for an apocalyptic novel, but unfortunately suffers from being written by somebody who had perhaps at this point in his career written too many of them. Literally the first day after the disaster, Matthew has accepted that this is truly the end of civilisation and is speculating about how things will unfold for the survivors not just in the days and weeks ahead, but the years and generations; I’m sure a writer of post-apocalyptic fiction would do that, but probably not a Guernsey horticulturalist. It’s also only a few days before the other Guernsey survivors are descending into caveman rule, asserting which men “own” which women and so on, and when Matthew gets to the mainland he finds it’s collapsed into brutal anarchy with survivors killing and raping and plundering with abandon, when there’s not even any real scarcity or competition for resources yet. (The vast majority of people are dead; tinned food lies in every ruin for the taking.) This is in stark contrast to Christopher’s earlier novel The Death of Grass, which illustrates how civility and peacefulness can crumble quite quickly when there are suddenly too many mouths and not enough food, i.e. when there is a material reason for them to do so. In A Wrinkle in the Skin it just seems silly.

The Death of Grass is also the superior novel for demonstrating, unlike much post-apocalyptic fiction, that most people would be quite willing to hurt others to save themselves and their children; it does so by having the main characters violently attack and kill an innocent family to take their food, flipping the usual cliche of “good people” and “bad people” that you see even in acclaimed post-apocalyptic fiction like The Road. A Wrinkle in the Skin, on the other hand, hews more closely to Christopher’s curiously English outlook I identified in The World in Winter: his conceit (laid out here explicitly, at one point) that in the event of a disaster like this, the middle class would be a steady, civilised hand on the tiller while the working class, if left to themselves, would descend into a violent, anarchic rabble, referred to here as “oiks” or “yobbos.”

It’s a fairly offensive stance, though difficult to tell how much of it is subconscious and how much Christopher would have held to it if anybody had ever challenged him on it. Maybe it was also present in his better novels like The Death of Grass, and I unwittingly passed over it; I read them when I was much younger and before I’d lived in England and realised how pervasive their class structure is even in the 21st century, let alone Christopher’s day. I don’t have any illusions about whether peaceful civilisation could endure an event like this, but I don’t believe that it would disintegrate that quickly, and I certainly don’t believe it would fragment along class lines – that’s a ridiculous English fantasy. (And this is all without touching on the book’s sexism which at times becomes outright misogyny, puzzlingly uncharacteristic of Christopher.)

It’s still a decent book for all that. I try not to judge writers too harshly for being a product of their age, and it really only stuck out here for me because it’s by far the most explicit presentation of Christopher’s class prejudice I’ve yet read. There are some great set-pieces, particularly the trek across the dried-out seabed of the English Channel, and the half-mad Greek captain living in his luxurious beached tanker. There’s an interesting dynamic that develops between Matthew and the young boy he rescues and takes under his wing, with the former feeling a constant guilt for endangering the kid by dragging him across England looking for his own daughter. A Wrinkle in the Skin is a good read; just take Christopher’s prognostications about how the post-apocalyptic chips might fall with a pinch of salt.

The Reverse of the Medal by Patrick O’Brian (1986) 267 p.

reverse of the medal

We can glean from O’Brian’s foreword, which I avoided reading too closely, that this will be a book which once again cleaves close to the true-life story of Lord Thomas Cochrane by entangling Jack in a financial scandal. Jack’s poor financial sense has thus far been employed by O’Brian as a device to keep him at sea, still searching for prizes and career glory, because by all rights a captain as successful as he is should be an admiral behind a desk by now; but of course that wouldn’t be much fun to read about. It’s therefore something of a surprise (to those of us not particularly well-versed on Cochrane’s biography, or those of us who have declined to read about him to avoid Aubrey-Maturin spoilers) when this particular financial scandal turns out to very seriously threaten Jack’s career. It’s similar to a scene in the last book, The Far Side of the World, in which Stephen yet again falls into the drink but this time does so in a manner which is not mere comic relief but a genuine threat to his life, and then to Jack’s, and leads on to an unexpected and quite memorable new story thread. They’re both very successful subversions of O’Brian’s own long-running plot devices.

I always enjoy Aubrey-Maturin books which are a little more land-based and this was no exception; there’s a chase across the Atlantic in the first act, and I was reminded (since The Far Side of the World was, I think, the first novel in the series with no naval engagements whatsoever) of how much I still struggle to really understand what’s going on in these sequences. O’Brian’s prose is always pleasurable to read, and I like the way he illuminates small character moments amid the action, such as Jack only half-listening to Maturin and Martin while he judges the change in the weather from the shift in the deck and the tilting of his wine. But for me it’s a relief when HMS Surprise returns to England and the remainder of the book plays out in London and Hampshire.

It’s also one of the first books I’ve noticed O’Brian airing what seem to be rather more personal views; he clearly has no love of lawyers, he was possibly successful enough as a writer by now that he makes a lot of comments about the effects of coming into a large fortune by way of a surrogate character who does the same, and he has a level of knowledge of cricket which suggests he certainly learned how to play it at school but probably, like Stephen (and myself), has little regard for it:

“You will never play all this afternoon and all tomorrow too, for God’s love?” cried Stephen, shocked out of civility by the thought of such insufferable tedium drawn out to such unconscionable length.

“He was at the same school as I, though of an earlier generation; he often came down to watch us, and once he told me that cricket was played regularly in Heaven; and that, from a man with his attainments, is surely a recommendation.”
“I must draw what comfort I can from the doctrine of Limbo.”

Several people mentioned to me before I read this one that it also contains one of the most emotionally affecting scenes in all twenty books, and they were right. It struck me that The Reverse of the Medal is a point where, had he so chosen, O’Brian could have appropriately ended the series: a huge display of respect and loyalty for Jack from what seems like half the Navy during a moment of crisis; Jack’s departure from the service and entry into the world of privateering; Stephen’s enemies in espionage exposed and about to be dealt with; the only unsatisfactory note would be Stephen’s unresolved relationship with Diana. Anyway, he kept on writing them, and we’re all very glad he did.

Archive Calendar

January 2020