Book review: The Death of Grass

the-death-of-grassTitle: The Death of Grass
Author: John Christopher
Year: 1956

Today is Writing Wednesday and instead of a discussion about the process of a writing, I am reviewing a novel I just finished reading. Please note that there are spoilers in this review. As you may have read in earlier blog posts about dystopias, utopias and the end of the world, I wrote my Master’s Thesis on 3 post-apocalyptic novels from the 1950s: The Day of the Triffids, On the Beach and I Am Legend. I compared these to 3 film adaptations from the 2000s on the topic of social cohesion.

The 1950s were a good time for me to choose post-apolycaptic novels from, because in the wake of the Second World War and the atomic bomb, there was a lot of pessimism abound, resulting in post-apocalyptic scenarios. The Death of Grass is another one of those novels. As it hasn’t been made into a film – or in any case, not recently – I did not use it for my thesis. It did, however, win several literary awards in 1957. It was even runner-up for the International Fantasy Award, which went to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings instead.

The premise of the novel is crystal clear: originating from China a deadly cropvirus emerges. Initially it only kills rice. While the rest of the world watches the Asians starve, the virus mutates. Before too long it also destroys wheats and grasses. As the virus reaches Britain and the government prepares drastic measures to ensure that Britain faces the disaster with dignity, John Custance and his family escape from London and head for his brother’s hidden valley in the north, where they hope to be safe. The novel ends with their arrival there, about a week after they left London.

The book paints a dark, sinister and oddly realistic picture. Cropvirusses do have disasterous consequences, as the Irish potatoe famine illustrated. Christopher has a very pessimistic view of British society in the face of famine. The majority of the novel takes place in a timespan of 1 week, and in that week both the protagonists and the rest of the British population evolve from perfectly civilised Brits into ice cold, calculating survivors. By the time John Custance and his group reach his brother’s valley, they have murdered at least a dozen people. And by the time they are inside the valley, John has murdered his own brother. In that respect Christopher is more pessimistic than his fellow 1950s novelists, whose protagonists aren’t nearly as quick to abandon the old values.

In another respect Christopher does match his peers. It is his treatment of men and women. In all post-apocalyptic novels from the 1950s (the ones I have read), the men have sophisticated, rational conversations about the impending or present disaster. The women may occasionally interrupt them, but only to offer an emotional viewpoint which is quickly rationalised away by the men. Christopher especially also appears to have very little empathic ability when it comes to women. In the novel, John Custance’s wife Ann and young (teenage) daughter Mary are captured and then raped by several men, before they are rescued. After that, Ann is reclusive for a couple of days until she returns to her normal self. The main problem is the shock of killing one of the rapists herself. Mary needs less time to recover, she is back to normal within 24 hours. Seriously?! To me, this is not only a very naive, but an offensive treatment of rape. For one thing, no one worries about the possibility of a pregnancy induced by the rape. But I can especially not believe that a young girl like Mary, presumably a virgin before the incident, would just return to her old self, undamaged both physically and mentally. Of course the same is true for Ann, minus the virgin part. All I could do was shake my head when reading that part of the novel.

All in all I enjoyed reading the novel, although it is not quite as imaginative as The Day of the Triffids, I Am Legend or On the Beach. It is, however, perhaps more realistic than any of the other titles in its premise and gritty depiction of society, despite its flaws in the female department. However, I would have liked the novel to continue to find out if in two years, ten years, John Custance has truly turned into the feudal lord he was on his way to becoming.

Has anyone else read this novel? What did you think about it? Do you agree with my points?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s