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Tuesday, 13 May 2014

A Departure - Book review

This book, A Departure,  has gathered quite a momentum of praise and exposure. Admittedly, some of this is due to the youth of the author. Tom Ward was about twenty-three when he wrote it. Received wisdom would have us believe that the age of the author is not relevant, it’s the story that counts – either it works or it doesn’t, it either involves the reader or it doesn’t. I’d go along with that. Still, once I’d read the book and then checked out the Amazon reviews, I was struck by the range in comments. A Departure has acquired an enviable number of reviews. Yet some of the reviews are not real reviews, simply stating something along the lines of ‘A great book, I couldn’t put it down, look forward to Tom Ward’s next one.’ Other less complimentary reviews highlighted his age and perceived inexperience, while several commented on typos. [The publisher has since attended to the typos].

Tom Ward took a risk, embarking on a debut novel in the dystopian genre. There’s a long history of this type of work, going back even before John Wyndham and Brian Aldiss, the authors who introduced me to the sub-genre . The conceit is depicting how ordinary individuals cope with their new and darkened circumstances, and to a large extent I believe Tom Ward achieves that, despite some stylistic flaws.
Michael Taylor is approaching the end of his teens when ‘the event’ occurs. We don’t get told what happened, though it’s hinted that it might have had something to do with global warming. Plenty of disaster novels don’t give the reasons – simply thrusting their characters into the new changed world. Whatever the cause, it seems that the vast majority of people have succumbed – simply died in their tracks. Eerily empty streets, beloved of disaster movies, are depicted realistically. Michael’s encounter with a man who intends to steal the family car is the first of several scenes where extreme violence raises its head – and it’s uncomfortable in its depiction, and in Michael’s psyche.

Michael returned home briefly after his family’s failed attempt to leave the country met with the deaths of his parents and sister. Now, he sets off in a stolen car, heading first to his grandparents’ house. Already, he’s quite hardened to the sight of dead bodies. His eventual leave-taking of his proud grandfather is moving without being mawkish. ‘Something sank in Michael’s chest as his bottom lip began to quiver. Suddenly, he was a young boy again, crying at his grandparents’ house after falling over, but this time a plaster and some Germolene would not make things better.’

He then goes south, in a hazy attempt at finding succour. On his way, he encounters a mixture of strange, interesting, violent people, all understandably affected by the apocalyptic event. He is not alone for long, soon joining up with Judith, then David and Zanna, encountering a religious group, a pseudo-government-run tent camp, a supermarket refuge for youths, and an isolated farmer and wife.

There is a danger with this kind of novel that it will be bleak throughout: ‘The corpses were scattered over the fields like seeds in spring.’

Yet we know from first-hand accounts that even survivors of the Holocaust had cause to rely on humour to get them through their horrendous ordeal. Humour is part of the human condition. And so Tom Ward gives us humour, too, for example:
‘Michael walked on, guitar song assaulting his ears from all directions. It seemed as though guitar players had been exempt from the apocalypse.’

There are many glimpses of good metaphor and description, too: ‘… June sun quickly turned the air thick and warm, the tent walls sagging inwards like a surrendered lung that could breathe no more of the heavy air.’ And I liked this description – ‘Judith cut in, her voice hard as a week-old scone.’
Unexplained disasters throw up survivors and in some way they prove the theory of the survival of the fittest; not necessarily fit in a physical sense, or exhibiting a higher capacity of intelligence; it may be something as simple as the fitness of certain genetic pointers carried by those who live on.

And the book’s title can be viewed on several levels. The story is a departure for Michael, moving from boyhood to manhood, since it’s definitely a coming-of-age tale. It is also a departure for the survivors from everything they knew, everything familiar. And ultimately it’s a departure by some survivors from the UK.
I particularly liked the neat ‘golden’ reference at the beginning and its echo at the end of the book.
A worthy debut novel. Tom Ward should be encouraged to keep writing. I would hope that he doesn't take the negative comments too much to heart and make his literary departure. For he has much to offer readers as he evolves. (I've been writing for over forty years and I'm still evolving!)

[A shorter version of the above review will be posted in Amazon and Goodreads.]


Francene Stanley said...

I enjoyed your commentary and insight into the book. I wish I could write a review in a similar vein, pointing out the pitfalls whilst excusing the author for his youth and inexperience.

Nik said...

Thanks, Francene. I wouldn't mind a fraction of the number of reviews that A Departure has received, I must admit.