I read ‘Riddley Walker’ by Russell Hoban because someone I admired said it’s a book that changed their life. Plus, it’s widely hailed as one of the great novels of the 20th century.
Sadly I can’t say that my life is now changed. I can say, however, that this book was definitely worth the read – even if it did take me three full months (!). Now at its end, I feel as though I’ve been spat out the belly of a dark, sinister maze.
What the heck just happened?
Let’s all try and make some sense of this crazy adventure.
For anyone who hasn’t heard of Riddley Walker, it’s one of the very first post-apocalyptic novels ever written (published in 1980). It’s set in the English county of Kent and civilisation is slowly recovering, 2000 years after a nuclear disaster. Technologically, it is the Iron Age.
The entire book is written in a kind of pigeon, broken English. So-called Riddleyspeak. It’s not hard to understand if you read it aloud and use a drop of imagination… and it does more to set the scene than 100 pages of text. (I actually found it easier to pick up then the Scottish tongue Irvine Welsh sometimes uses).
Here is the first sentence of the book:
“On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs…”
Like the language, Hoban’s world is muddled. It is sick and haunted and we stumble through it alongside young Riddley Walker. His only protection is a pack of wild dogs. For some reason, I trust the dogs more than Riddley. He is vulnerable and rash and seemingly lost. Oftentimes, I don’t understand his reasoning and I struggle to make sense of this primitive world through his eyes. Luckily, Hoban has flooded the book with clever references to modern science, religion, history, geography (there must be dozens of references I missed!).
But back to Riddley. Despite his shortcomings, he is incredibly tender and there are moments when Riddley would become philosophical – his little bursts of wisdom quickly became a highlight of the book for me. His insights, though brief, were piercingly clear – and a welcome contrast to the general disarray and gloom of the book.
Here are just a few:
“Our woal life is a idear we dint think of nor we dont know what it is. What a way to live.”
“The worl is ful of things waiting to happen. Thats the meat and boan of it right there. You myt think you can jus go here and there doing nothing. Happening nothing. You cant tho you bleeding cant. You put your self on any road and some thing wil show its self to you. Wanting to happen. Waiting to happen. You myt say, ‘I dont want to know.’ But 1ce its showt its self to you you wil know wont you. You cant not know no mor. There it is and working in you. You myt try to put a farness be twean you and it only you cant becaws youre carrying it inside you. The waiting to happen aint out there where it ben no more its inside you.”
“O yes youwl want to think on that you dont want your mouf to walk you where your feet dont want to go.”
“What ever eats mus shit.”
So, a challenging read, but wow, the concepts, the ideas, the horror!
Author David Mitchell once described it as ‘ingenious, uncompromising, glorious, angelic and demonic’ – and I reckon that’s just about spot on. In fact, Hoban’s novel acutally inspired parts of Mitchell’s best-seller Cloud Atlas. Read about it here.
Have you read Riddley Walker? What did you think?