Recommendation: Borrow it from the library when you’re in the mood for a well written version of the typical post apocalyptic story. The plot will be familiar, but it’s the writing that’s the main attraction here.
I went a few years back here to read one of the recent classics, The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Now you’ve probably heard of how great this book is, but I’m here to tell you that the truth is slightly more murky. The Road is good, but it didn’t do much for me in terms of suspense or tear-jerking. Things happen more or less how you think they will, which blunts the emotional experience for me quite a bit. But, at the same time, I was very impressed with the writing and McCarthy’s detailed imagination of the characters’ harsh realities.
The basic plot of The Road is that a son and his child (pragmatically referred to as The Man and The Boy) are trying to survive after an apocalyptic event destroys civilization and turns the world into a snowy, ash-filled wasteland. Imagine a cross between a burned out forest and Mount Everest and then have that be literally everywhere. So yeah, things are pretty grim. The few people our protagonists run into are cannibalistic murderers and the threat of starvation is ever present. As they move south to avoid the worsening climate, their hopes of finding other (preferably non-human-eating) survivors is put to the test.
Again, this looks pretty standard to those of you who’ve read a few post-apocalyptic novels. But, what really keeps me from giving this book a great recommendation is the emotional distance placed between the reader and the characters. In a barren, desolate landscape, characters are all the reader has to grab on to, the only signal in all that noise, and this book can’t quite give you that oh-my-god-I-just-got-punched-in-the-stomach-with-how-intense-this-situation-is feeling. In fact, even calling the characters “The Man” and “The Boy” seems to unnecessarily push you away from really getting to know them.
That being said, the writing is quite extraordinary. I wasn’t blown away by this novel, but I also don’t want to give the impression that McCarthy is anything less than a fantastic author or that his work shouldn’t be so highly lauded—it absolutely should. He has an uncanny ability to match his writing style perfectly with the tone of his novel. He gives the readers exactly what they need, but doesn’t waste time going on about philosophical nuances (just like how The Man and The Boy have to put their basic survival needs over everything else). The dialogue is straightforward and quick, perhaps becoming McCarthy’s most effective tool in bringing the audience into his world. While there are other post-apocalyptic books that may provide you with a greater emotional ride (The Dog Stars by Peter Heller is a good example), there are few that will be able to match The Road‘s literary merit.