Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Sleeper Hit of the Autumn

I finished A Gift Upon the Shore today. As I was reading it, I barely thought more than the occasional, "this book is pretty good."

And then, last night, I couldn't sleep, because my mind was just skittering around. It wasn't on anything specific, but that's the worst sign. When I have something specific on my mind, I can usually purposefully set it aside and fall asleep. But if I'm actually awake, with my mind wandering, it means one of two things: I've had a huge slug of caffeine during the day, or there's something weird in the back of my mind that can't stop niggling at me.

I think it was this book. Almost any post-apocalyptic book will do that to me--I'm easily haunted by the end of the world. That fear follows me around most of the time anyway, even when it's not being singed into my imagination by whatever book I'm reading. But this book...I can't explain it. It reminds me of Clan of the Cave Bear in some ways; in how it bookends all the history of mankind, and you can see the struggle to think, to adapt, to remember, to find meaning, to fight ignorance, you can see all these deep themes and truly feel, deep down, how they matter. You can truly understand what it means to be human, and to work at being human and a member of the human race, underneath all the bells and whistles we've added, underneath all the assumptions we bring to the everyday task of being thinking beings in a mortal world. It blows my mind.

The thing about post-apocalyptic novels is that they almost always have upbeat endings, even if only slightly. And, pretty much always, these endings ring false. Of course they do--when civilization has ended, the idea of "hope" that we hold onto looks a lot like getting it back. I didn't read The Road, nor will I, but I know how it ends, and it's a fake, cheap stab at hope after a book that is really about (again) being human against the blackness of despair. Life As We Knew It was a young adult novel, so you can forgive it for its optimism, but it's so falsely based--the cogs of government, of civilization, are revealed to have slowed but not stopped, and government aid arrives.

But from where? How does that make any sense? What so excited me, in the end, was that A Gift Upon the Shore has such modest hopes, and doesn't promise you anything. By setting its sights low, the slow warmth at the end of the story is honest, is true. It helps that the book lays aside the physical destruction of the world--most of the story takes place half a lifetime after the end of the world, and nature has recovered. It is only civilization that is lost, and the whole idea of the story is less about a struggle to survive--that's risky but straightforward. It's about the struggle to remain enlightened--to keep the best of this world we've made, this golden age we live in, without succumbing to the worst of it.

I don't know if I've expressed what I thought about this book, and I almost dread hearing from a reader more astute than myself who might find things to disagree with in the book. But what I can say is this--this book made me think for hours about the issues it raised, whether I agree with the author's opinions on those issues or not. What more can a person ask for?

No comments: