By Conrad Williams
(Virgin Books, 2009)
My first taste of Conrad Williams' work came in the Solaris Book of New Fantasy, with his story O Caritas, of which I said at the time: "O Caritas by Conrad Williams takes place in a post-apocalyptic London, where the rich live closeted away in their towers and the rest of the city's inhabitants are engaged in a constant struggle for survival amid the ruins of the past. Williams manages to imbue the piece with real tension at times, and his visceral portrayal of the ruined London is hugely atmospheric."
It was enough to keep Williams' name in my memory, and subsequently when I recently found myself unable to settle on a book, I happened across a copy of his recent novel One. The premise - man somehow survives global holocaust and treks hundreds of miles across a post-apocalyptic landscape in search of his son - instantly appealed to me. Fortunately, I like this sort of story/setting enough to not be put off by the slightly cheesy cover and the even more cheesy tagline:
One follows the struggles of Richard Jane, a deep-sea diver/engineer working off an oil rig in the North Sea. He's deep underwater when an unexplained event fries the whole world to a crisp, and is subsequently protected from the horrific deaths visited upon his colleagues. Making his way to dry land - the east coast of Scotland - Jane finds himself alone in a new, terrifying world. Driven on by his desire to be reunited with his son (whom he refuses to believe is dead), Jane embarks on a long trek to London, where he learns that the cataclysm brought something rather nasty with it...
One is a brutal, harrowing novel. The ordeal that Jane goes through is nothing short of horrific, and Williams doesn't hold back - my mouth fell open more than once. Yet the novel never strays into pulpy territory; Williams' prose is far too sophisticated for that - fluid and visceral, it lends the novel a bleak atmosphere underpinned by a growing tension. Some of the descriptive prose is simply superb, lending the novel an unnerving degree of authenticity.
Richard Jane makes for an engaging protagonist, with the novel told entirely from his point of view. Williams subtly reveals the key events in Jane's life bit by bit until we have a clear idea of what makes him tick. I particularly liked the wry comments about his failed relationship and the fall-out from it; these observations indicate that Williams has a deft grasp of human mentality and adds a real depth and personal resonance to both Jane and the story itself. The secondary characters that Jane encounters are all fleshed out well and his interactions with them are believable. Williams creates a few well-judged situations to illustrate the idiocy of human personality - such as the alpha male complex - and the irony (sometimes even humour) adds a nice counterpoint to the overwhelming sense of desolation.
I did have some reservations. I found the plot didn't quite match the excellence of the prose and characterisation. The pace during first two thirds of the novel stumbles now and again, and I did find myself thinking "Do we really have to have another 'let's-explore-the-abandoned-house' scene?" The considerable chronological jump in the final third was somewhat jarring, and I found that for some reason I didn't enjoy this third of the book as much as the others. It's almost like the book makes a stylistic change, becoming a bit more action-orientated, and for some reason this seemed a little at odds with the style of the rest of the novel. In addition I did find the ending to be rather weak, and I still had several questions that hadn't really been answered (though that might well be my own fault, rather than the book's). As a minor point, as good as the descriptive prose is I did feel that sometimes it got in the way a little - there's only so many times you need to be told what the sky looks like, and so on.
Verdict: Weak ending and chronology-related issues aside, One is an engrossing account of one man's determination to survive despite the odds. Williams creates a superbly bleak atmosphere punctuated by moments of visceral detail, while his clear grasp of human mentality - and the little nuances that often go unnoticed - inject realism into the story, making it somehow more personal. One is a brutal, harrowing and terrifyingly authentic read.