Riddley Walker (1980) by Russell Hoban

“I think the best writing is done with what enters you and takes possession of you and doesn’t let go of you until you get the job done.” – Russell Hoban


Riddley Walker is the 12 year old narrator of this tale set in a post-apocalyptic England two thousand years after nuclear war has wiped out most of civilization. It is written in a vernacular English that often needs to be read out loud to understand. It tells the story of Riddley’s journey as he travels to Canterbury and back, trying to piece together what happened by seeking a “Little Shynin Truth” in the remnants of an old Saint’s story and the Punch & Judy show.

First things first, this book is not an easy read. I don’t think it is meant to be. Only 214 pages long, yet it took me months to read it through. I kept putting it down and reading other books, becoming too easily distracted by more “popular” fare. But when I did read it, I quickly found myself immersed in the grim, primitive, pitiless world that Hoban creates. Imagine muddy paths winding through a sparse, broken landscape, endless rain falling at dusk, packs of starving wild dogs waiting just out of bow range. Perhaps there was only so much darkness that I was willing to take at one time?

‘Lissening to the rain dumming on my hood and looking at the candls and the nite fires in the roof and the crowd all sat there with the rainy dark all roun them. You know some times you get a fealing you dont want to put no words to.’ (p.51)

Hoban’s use of such a unique vernacular English slows down the whole reading process. Some reviewers believe this was a deliberate ploy by the author. We readers struggle through Riddley’s tale as much as he struggles to make sense of his own journey. The language used changes the whole pace of the novel and adds to our immersion into its primitive landscape. We become Riddley, his struggle is ours. It is a fascinating effect, one which I didn’t fully appreciate on my first reading.

‘He gone qwyet for a wyl then. Peopl with eyes you can see them move back from the front of ther eyes when they dont have no mor to say. This kid tho being he dint have no eyes in his face you cudnt see nothing when he movit back he jus dispeart. There come out of him a sylents with a roaring in it like when you put your ear to a sea shel.’ (p.79)

 

It was an interview with the author David Mitchell that led me to Riddley Walker. Mitchell cited this book’s voice and language as an influence on his own story Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After from the middle of Cloud Atlas. I recommend both works if you feel like a challenge and don’t mind all the darkness. After all, without darkness what need is there for light?

“After all, when you come right down to it, how many people speak the same language even when they speak the same language?” – Russell Hoban

 

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