Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Children of the Dust

Louise Lawrence
Fontana Lions

After a nuclear war devastates the earth, a small band of people struggles for survival in a new world where children are born with strange mutations.
Everyone thought, when the alarm bell rang, that it was just another fire practice. But the first bombs had fallen on Hamburg and Leningrad, the headmaster said, and a full-scale nuclear attack was imminent.
It's a real-life nightmare. Sarah and her family have to stay cooped up in the tightly-sealed kitchen for days on end, dreading the inevitable radioactive fall-out and the subsequent slow, torturous death, which seems almost preferable to surviving in a grey, dead world, choked by dust.
But then, from out of the dust and the ruins and the destruction, comes new life, a new future, and a whole brave new world.


Every now and again I get an unstoppable craving to revisit the apocalypse; this has been the case pretty much since I could read.  I love post-apocalypse books (and films) and will pretty much read any I can get my hands on, particularly the British ones as they are less likely to devolve into shootyness. Lawrence's book does indeed deal with a British style apocalypse, in this case of the nuclear variety which suits it's 1985 publication date.

The book is split into three parts and follows the fortunes of three generations of one extended family as Britain is devastated in a nuclear holocaust and then through into the aftermath.

Louise Lawrence
The first and by for the most harrowing part of the book tells of teenager Sarah who, along with her stepmother and two younger siblings is trapped in her living room as the bombs fall and the world dies.  Sarah's story tells of the futility of their survival methods as the fallout slowly poisons them through the dust in the air and the contaminated food and water they consume in their starvation.

Part two introduces us to Sarah's absent father, Bill, who has become separated from his family due to the unfolding events but who is lucky enough to find himself in a government fallout shelter.  After a jump of some seventeen years we get to see how this bunker full of bureaucrats, scientists and soldiers are dealing with the apocalypse by clinging to the ways of the old world and expecting those who have survived outside and who have begun to adapt to the world to respect their spurious authority and accede to their wishes.

The final part relates the story of Bill's grandson as he ventures outside the now failing bunker and meets, for the first time, the mutated survivors of the fallout;  albinos with pin prick eyes and furry skin.  Faced with their kindness and understanding he is forced to confront his own prejudices and realise his place in this new world.

For the first two parts of the book Lawrence provides an unflinchingly nightmarish vision of the nuclear apocalypse as children slowly die of radiation sickness and newborn babies are left outside in the snow to die.  It makes for fascinatingly immersive reading but the book suffers from a weak third act where the mutated survivors are revealed to be ultra-powerful telepathic and telekinetic homo-superior and it all becomes bogged down in utopianist science fantasy.  There's also a fairly disquieting and distasteful Christian undercurrent that pervades the book with hints given that the apocalypse was God's way of removing flawed humanity in order to allow the spiritually superior mutants to take over.

It was though a book that was very much worth the read and showed an author unafraid to provide her - then - young readers with a story that didn't pander to delicate sensibilities and, for the most part, showed the then ever present threat of nuclear armageddon in all it's futile horror.

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