I am puzzled why I have never heard of this shocking 1950’s novel before. The threat of nuclear oblivion inevitably had a strong impact on writers in this country, producing a whole crop (ironically, in this context) of post-Apocalyptic novels. Obvious examples are “The Day of the Triffids” and “Lord of the Flies”, the two novels most commonly referenced in commentary on “The Death of Grass”. Although it had previously been out of print for some time before being brought back by Penguin for this edition, it does not suffer from these comparisons. I can however understand why it is not a school text book (as with Lord of the Flies) – there are some shocking, brutal scenes of murder and rape, described dispassionately.
The re-issue of this novel is timely, because the crisis that precipitates the flight across the country of the band of middle class survivors is not nuclear nor alien, but ecological. A virus arises in Asia that wipes out all forms of grass and remains resistant to any form of treatment. The famines that follow rapidly lead to a breakdown in social order. While grasses may not form the central part of our diet that the novel suggests, this is really not relevant – our food supply chains are stretched, vulnerable and fragile. Equally we may not resort to the lawlessness that engulfs the characters in this novel quite as quickly as appears here – but we might. It is on this issue that the comparisons with Golding are most interesting, because Golding’s cast of characters – schoolboys, albeit mostly middle class, privately educated ones, – has led many to argue that the primitive instincts they give free rein to are only found in little boys, rather than all people. Christopher leaves us here with no such comforting evasions – even the best of us can quickly resort to murder and brutality to defend our families. The veneer of civilisation is frighteningly thin. The men in this novel go from comfortable middle class lives to people who murder innocent families for some breakfast, with hardly a pause for reflection. These are not isolated monsters – around them society fragments with frightening pace, and even the Government contemplates/resorts to (it is not completely clear which) using nuclear weapons on their own people.
The economy of Christopher’s writing is striking, and the pace of the action is a strength of the novel – no time for pauses for breath are allowed. Despite my slow reading in recent months I read this in a sitting. There are some caveats of course – the brutality of the treatment of women in the novel is hard to stomach, even thought they are not all the 1950’s stock characters you might expect, with some of them showing resilience and strength in the face of appallingly difficult circumstances. The digressions on leadership and its role in feudal societies are a little over done, although again at less than 200 pages there is not much time to find this irritating. This is definitely a period novel – post war behaviours, language and attitudes anchor the events of the novel in the 1950s. Class is still a powerful factor in the way people defer to their betters, the war is a very recent memory, and people are self reliant and practical in ways we would struggle with today. But the novel transcends this datedness.
We like to scare ourselves with stories of “What if…?”, and cling to the comforting thought that we would face whatever is thrown at us with a stiff upper lip. That’s the mythology that we used and fostered to help us survive the Blitz and the threat of German invasion in the 1940s. Christopher refuses to offer any comforting conclusion to his disaster novel – the ravaging disease isn’t contained, the army doesn’t arrive at the death to reimpose order. All we have left is family and, if we lucky, a gun.