A meditation on solitude


Robert C O’Brien Z for Zachariah Puffin 1998 (1974)

In the 60s and 70s I frequently had vivid dreams about detonating nuclear bombs, the images of blinding flash and mushroom cloud familiar from countless newsreel clips of the Hiroshoma and Nagasaki attacks, the subsequent atomic bomb tests by the major powers and the Cuba missile crisis. I had also watched the BBC TV docu-drama The War Game when it was shown in cinemas in 1966, and that had made a huge impression on me, reinforced when I read Raymond Briggs’ 1982 graphic novel When the Wind Blows. All these impressions were re-awoken when I finally got round to reading Z for Zachariah and coloured my first responses to it, centred on the absolute futility of nuclear war.

But the more I think about this novel, the more I wonder at its richness in respect of what is implicit as well as what is explicit. The plot itself is easily told: there has been a global nuclear Armageddon in which the only human survivor is the teenager Ann Burden, living in the eponymously named Burden Valley which has miraculously escaped the fallout. Into this mysterious island of life comes John Loomis, clothed in a radiation suit, eliciting the comment that Ann writes in her journal and which opens the book: “I am afraid.” And, as we discover, she is right to be afraid.

The title is also easy to explain. It is a reference to the Sunday School alphabet book that Ann remembers from ther childhood, which begins “A is for Adam” and ends “Z for Zachariah”; the younger Ann interpreted this as Zachariah being the name of the last man on Earth. In fact, as far as John Loomis is concerned he may well be the last man, which also means that Ann may well be the last woman on Earth (she turns 16 in the course of the story). As Biblical references are scattered through the novel it may or may not be significant that the two most familiar Zachariahs are the Jewish prophet of the Babylonian captivity, when the Jews were in exile in Mesopotamia, and the father of John the Baptist, both men standing at the threshold of a kind of redemption. (Ann, it’s tempting to speculate, may be from the traditional name of Jesus’ maternal grandmother, but that’s probably stretching relationships too far.)

The implicit scenario is that Ann envisages herself and her “Mr Loomis” being the new Adam and Eve. However, it soon becomes clear that all is not right in the isolated paradise that is Burden Valley, and that an expulsion from Eden may be expected (though not quite as scripted) as a consequence of tasting (however involuntarily) the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. In fact, Biblical history may be going into reverse, with hints of the rivalry between Cain and Abel being repeated even before Loomis’ entry into Ann’s 20th-century Eden.

The unlikely sparing from radiation of Burden Valley (maybe Ann’s home was suggested by the town of Burden in Kansas) and the falsity of O’Brien’s post-nuclear vision has often been questioned, with Carl Sagan’s conjuring of the nightmare of nuclear winter usually quoted. The pseudo-science of Loomis’ radiation suit also lacks credibility. This is to miss much of the point of O’Brien’s story (or at least what we must guess from the posthumous novel, which was completed by his wife and daughter from his notes). Yes, Z for Zachariah is a comment on the foolish and dire consequences of nuclear wars; how could it be otherwise? But it is also a meditation on humankind’s solitude as a species and as individuals. Ann’s initial remark on realising she was not alone, “I am afraid,” reminded me so much of Robinson Crusoe’s journal entry, “I was exceedingly surpriz’d with the Print of a Man’s naked Foot on the Shore…” it made me consider O’Brien’s book as a kind of mirror image of Defoe’s novel.

Where 17th-century Crusoe finds himself marooned on an island, 20th-century Ann finds herself alone in a valley isolated from the rest of the stricken world. Just as Crusoe learns self-sufficiency and re-discovers the Bible so does Ann salvage items from the local store, farm her land and visit the wooden church for consolation. They both accustom themselves to a life of eternal solitude, only to be shocked and frightened by the evidence of another human. But where Robinson befriends his rescued ‘man Friday’ and discovers it is a prologue to his return to civilisation, Ann’s rescue attempt ends in estrangement, danger and a journey into the unknown, fortified only by dreams.

Commentators talk knowingly of the ‘unreliable narrator’ that Ann is, as though this is somehow is a barrier for the reader to overcome. For me, however, it is an aspect that makes this such a powerful human story, for we all put a spin on the events that we observe, take part in and then narrate. For the best part of the book Ann’s testimony comes across as the authentic words of a troubled and relatively untutored teenager coping as best she can in truly extraordinary circumstances (though occasionally there is a jarring term, which might be put down to subsequent editing). For this reason alone O’Brien’s swansong deserves to be treasured.

An Icelandic film based on this novel starring Margot Robbie, Chris Pine and Chiwetel Ejiofor has just been released, so it seemed opportune to dust off this July 2012 review and repost it.

2 thoughts on “A meditation on solitude

    1. I’m not a great fan of depressing literature myself, Kate, let alone those based on tragic post-apocalyptic scenarios: I’m not in a hurry, for example, to read Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (1957), worthy though that may be.

      Saying which, however, some literature sticks rather more in the mind more than those that deal factually with the consequences of nuclear war, fiction such as Raymond Briggs’ powerful graphic novel When the Wind Blows (which I mentioned in the review). On the film front Studio Ghibli’s animation Grave of the Fireflies is as effective and heartbreaking an indictment of nuclear war as any I’ve seen, told from the point of view of two Japanese children after the US firebombing and nuclear attacks of 1945.

      Depressing? Yes, but I’d argue that we need to be reminded how lucky our generation was things didn’t come to that pass during the Cold War, and how essential it is we remind the new generation that matters must never reach this stage again. Fiction tells us what may be as much as holding a mirror up to the past.


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