A meditation on solitude

nagasaki

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

In the 60s and 70s I frequently had vivid dreams about nuclear bombs detonating, 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, farms her land and visits 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 was released in 2015, so it then seemed opportune to dust off this July 2012 review and repost it. So its reappearance today is a repost of a repost — a reminder that in a time of coronavirus many countries are currently seeing a second spike in infections following too lax a loosening of restrictions on lockdown.

20 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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      1. On The Beach is one of my favorite novels. It must have hit at just the right time in my youth, and I’ve reread it recently. It is dated – the women were a bit more stereotyped than I remembered, but every page rings true, as a contingent of Australians figure out how to be the last people – and a visiting American submarine stays true.

        It is kind – and relentless.

        Nevil Shute wrote another novel I love – Trustee from the Toolroom. Maybe you could start there if you haven’t read it. It is a very strong novel of hope and responsibility.

        We need novelists to follow their paths to answer the ‘What if?’ questions of life. Which is why I write.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. As-ifs and What-ifs I believe are at the heart of most good storytelling, Alicia, so it’s good to hear that it’s a lot of what motivates you. Thank you for the Nevil Shute recommendations, I know he’s an author I’ll get to eventually but I know there’s so much I want to catch up on!

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      2. I’m reading The Day Of The Triffids atm, and in it, one of the characters says what happened to be lucky, as it prevented a much more destructive (Cold War) nuclear war. It’s interesting how catastrophes can be seen as non-depressing. Also today, some people seem to hope Corona will positively reset a few things – naively I think.

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        1. It’s still too early to work out what the fall-out from coronavirus will be, I agree, but there are already a few pointers: some businesses may fail or morph but essentially the corporations and businessmen, exploiters and warmongers will remain in pole position — that’s depressing, but realistic, I think.

          Crises and catastrophes may come and go, with one superceding another, so all we can do is our own little bit and some things may change for the better. Sorry to be pessimistic, but here in the UK we seem to be lurching rudderless between the Scylla and Charybdis of pandemic and economic ruin.

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  1. As a Puffin book, was this aimed at children then? It seems exceptionally dark and disturbing if so. I always get rather annoyed at people criticising the science in sci-fi – I suspect it’s that trend that makes so many authors go for full-on fantasy these days. No one could argue that HG Wells got the science right, but that was never the point, and it doesn’t sound like it’s the point in this one either…

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    1. It is indeed classed as kidlit, though nowadays probably marketed as YA. It’s significant perhaps that the BBC produced it as one in their series Play for Today, the Midwestern setting translated to Wales, though I never saw it either at the time nor since. There’s a good discussion which I’ve just read here: http://www.curiousbritishtelly.co.uk/2017/09/z-for-zachariah.html though the more recent film apparently dumps the contorted Adam and Eve angle for a love triangle.

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  2. piotrek

    Reading this review also reminded me of “On the Beach”, I’ve read it as a kid and it made quite an impression. Later I read a few books looking at the post-apocalyptic world tens, or hundreds, years after the event that ended our civilization – novels like “Canticle for Leibowitz”, or “A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World” are great, but to not as close to our experience. “On the Beach” I found a few years after the end of the Cold War, but it still made bigger impression than any zombie movie…

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    1. I agree, Piotrek, post-apocalypses in the far distant future quite evidently are not as immediate as one set a few years hence but within one’s own lifetime. Yet when we actually live in those once postulated futures eg The Shape of Things to Come, 1984, Back to the Future (2015) or even Blade Runner (set in 2019) and see what hasn’t come to pass it becomes harder to suspend disbelief!

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  3. inkbiotic

    I had those dreams too! In fact, I still do sometimes. Along with ones about hiding in bunkers. I’ve heard of Z for Zachariah, but never read it, but it sounds like a good one. Thank you for reminding me of it 🙂

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    1. It must be awful to still have those dreams — I can’t now remember when I last had them, a few decades probably now, but they are now replaced by different anxiety dreams related to whatever other mess the world happens to be in. Thank goodness they don’t result in something akin to sleep paralysis as they did on one or two occasions back then…

      Liked by 1 person

        1. I’m retrospectively diagnosing sleep paralysis only because my memory as a teenager was awaking — soaked in sweat and apparently in a deathly silence — after a vivid flash which had registered through closed eyelids, completely unable to move for some minutes, and reliving that moment over and over again, imagining the inevitable sounds and vibrations that must surely follow.

          Be prepared to relive it if ever you watch the utterly brilliant but shattering Studio Ghibli film Grave of the Fireflies. You’d need to be a braindead politician to watch that and not be anti-nuclear afterwards.

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          1. inkbiotic

            I’m assuming that Trump hasn’t been given access to US nuclear weapons (because that would be suicide) so hopefully we’ll be safe for a while. Shocking that humanity ever thought it was a good idea to make something that devastating. Of course it’s possible to say that about quite a few things…

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            1. I think many of us are having more disturbed sleep patterns and I know I’ve often emerged from some weird dreams, but luckily I can’t remember them too well, especially as I gain consciousness to a few cups of coffee as I pick up from where I finished reading the night before. Sometimes I wake up quite hopeful…

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