Tuesday, January 10, 2012

2. Z for Zachariah

By Robert C. O'Brien

Now this is what I’m talking about!

I have Mount Benson to thank for this, since Z for Zachariah came into my purview after seeing his review (fortunately, the copy I have has a much better-looking cover).

I was already acquainted with author Robert C. O’Brien having read Mrs Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, one of my favourite YA books of all time. It was a deceptively simple yet incredibly poignant tale. A true classic. The same quality of writing is also found in Z for Zachariah (1974). As I expected, this book kicks The Hunger Games and The Uglies in the ass in terms of being a more enriching read.*

Z for Zachariah is told in journal form by a fifteen-year-old girl, Ann Burden, who seems to be the sole survivor of a nuclear holocaust that devastated America. The remote valley where she lives is somehow unaffected by the fallout. As a farmer's daughter, Ann has the skills and experience to survive on her own and maintain what's left of the crop and livestock. One day, a man appears in the valley. For weeks, he had been walking across a contaminated landscape searching for life and wearing the world’s only prototype radiation suit, which he invented just before everything went to shit. When he discovers the flourishing valley, he thinks he has found paradise. When he finally meets Ann, well... let’s just say if there is a happily ever after, there wouldn’t be much of a story. If I had to write a blurb for this book, it would be something like:

What happens when the last girl on earth finally meets the last man on earth… and he happens to be a total dick?

Ok, my summary makes the story sound rather silly, but this is far from the case. I have not read many PA books, but this is up there as one of the good ones. In fact, Z for Zachariah seems to be a favourite among readers who are selective about their PA fiction. It is not perfect, as there are a couple of logistical questions that are never fully explained. For instance, for a mountain valley to miraculously escape nuclear contamination, the mountains would have to be closely packed together and high enough to shield the valley from deadly radiation carried over by wind and storm into the valley. The Rocky Mountain range makes geographical sense. However, the novel mentions Amish communities nearby (hence the well-stocked general store), but I don’t think any Amish settlements ever existed in the Rockies. So this would place Ann’s valley somewhere in the Appalachians, the next largest mountain range, but still much smaller in scale compared to the majestic Rockies.

Anyway, logistics aside, this was still a great book. I think I would have loved this book had I read it in my youth. I would have admired the resilience of Ann Burden, how she managed to stay one step ahead of the predatory Mr. Loomis, who was not only older and smarter than her, but was not beholden to any rule of law to act like a civilized being either. This was when Ann truly understood that she was frighteningly on her own.  Pretty dark stuff!

O’Brien did a wonderful job in making the reader identify with Ann. You felt her excitement when she discovered the possibility of another survivor, as well as her naivety in wanting to like and trust Mr. Loomis. You were there with her growing sense of unease as the man she nursed back to health gradually revealed his true colours as an insane control freak. Before she knew it, Mr Loomis had managed to take everything from her.  To quote Ann:

I was in a game of move-countermove, like a chess game, a game I did not want to be in at all. Only Mr. Loomis wanted to be in it, and only he could win it.

Like Mrs Frisby, the cat and mouse game between Ann and Mr. Loomis made for an incredibly gripping read on one level, yet there were also interesting underlying themes that provoked some thought. The sexual power struggle was an obvious one (this was, after all, written in the early seventies), but even so, it did not feel heavy-handed at all (like an Ira Levin novel, for instance). There were other dichotomies going on too. Fortunately, I found this Guardian review where author Sarah Hall did a wonderful job explaining how Z for Zachariah influenced her as a writer.

Here are some other archived reviews, such as Boris and SFsite.

Robert C. O’Brien was definitely a gifted storyteller, so it's too bad he had only written four books in his lifetime. Apparently, he died before he could finish the last chapter of Z for Zachariah, but since he had left notes, his wife and daughter were able to complete it posthumously.  I'm so thankful they did.

* Note I did not say "exciting", but "enriching".  This book may not appeal to readers with short attention spans who are expecting another Enclave or Divergent as there isn't a whole lot of action until much later.  There aren't any stupid love triangles either, since there are only two characters in the entire book.

1 comment:

OlmanFeelyus said...

It's really a terrifying concept. I am looking forward to reading it.