The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

‘The Road’ is the tenth novel from the pen of the award-winning American novelist Cormac McCarthy. It came out in 2006 and was an instant critical and popular success, winning the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction in that year and the Pulitzer Prize in 2007. It was subsequently made into a well-received Hollywood film of the same name, starring Viggo Mortensen, in 2009.

We are in the United States of America, a few decades from now. There has been an unidentified catastrophe which has totally destroyed human civilisation along with all animal life and most vegetation. All that is left are a few isolated survivors, some of whom have banded together into groups. Life is now a constant battle for survival against the elements, with the added challenge of avoiding the feral groups who have fallen to an existence of opportunist cannibalism.

The book follows an unnamed man and his young son as they follow the road of the title towards the coast, where the man hopes they will find salvation. On the way they scavenge for canned food in ruined houses, do their best to stay away from the roving gangs and come across a few other survivors, most just as lost as themselves. The man is slowly dying of tuberculosis and his only priority is to find somewhere or someone that will provide his son with a safe place to grow up once he is dead. He is haunted by the memory of his wife who lost any hope for the future some years earlier and took her own life, rather than wait for what she saw as the inevitability of being caught, raped and then eaten by one of the gangs. Can he achieve his goal and save his son?

Summarised in this dry way, the story sounds terribly depressing. It isn’t. The book is transformed into something extraordinary by two things. The first is McCarthy’s skill as a writer. The story unfolds in a lean, uncluttered prose which keeps you reading. The second is the emotional depth of the relationship between the two main characters, the man and the boy. Given that neither of them is ever named, McCarthy does an amazing job of making you care deeply about them both, as well as showing how much they care about each other. If you have not shed a tear by the time you read the final page, you must have a heart of stone.

‘The Road’ is a great literary novel, fully deserving of the Pulitzer Prize and its other plaudits. If you’re a fan of genre fiction and wouldn’t normally be seen dead reading something literary, give it a go. In my book, it knocks most post-apocalypse genre novels into the proverbial cocked hat.

Patrick Mahon

August 2012


(pub: Picador. 307 page paperback. Price: £7.99 (UK). ISBN 978-0-330-46846-6)

check out website: www.picador.com

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