Real life survival stories are hard to beat. Surely fiction can't hope to be as compelling? Fiction can't rely on suspension of disbelief, for starters. But it can go where the eyewitness or reality can’t: into the realms of fantasy, up to the point of death and beyond; into the far future or back to the distant unrecorded past. And it can give voice to those too young or traumatized to bear witness.
When I was writing The Last of Us I was aware I had to get the balance right: it had to feel real life (so lots of weirdly particular details – discarded gloves, masks, pills; child's eye descriptions of people's houses) while at the same time function as a work of fiction. There had to be an arc, a build of tension, while retaining something of the outlandish, dreamlike and downright queer verve that true stories have.
Here then are five novels (in no particular order) which I really admire, and where survival is a key theme, or key to the plot. I'll blog another five in the next few days.
1. The Road – Cormac McCarthy
Cormac McCarthy did appear to be in a bit of a hurry to dispense with the mother figure, who simply gave up (there are some brilliant feminist readings of The Road online which you should look up) but after that it’s all lads on tour!, though with not much in the way of road trip comedy. The few hours of respite that Man and Boy gain as they discover the hidden cell haunt me still: as do McCarthy’s odd stylistic twists of cranky, sometimes fussily precise language, so perfect for describing the fractured remnants of our world. Not a lot of romance in this one.
2. Mister Pip – Lloyd Jones
Love the way this starts. Like Lloyd Jones was setting himself a challenge: let's have a character called Pop Eye, who wears a clown's nose and pulls Mrs Pop Eye with a bit of string attached to the trolley she's standing in. Go on Lloyd: write the rest of that! This marvellous book uses a child's words to describe adult horror: the worst of all in half a sentence which breaks the heart. Now I can't think of Great Expectations without also thinking of young Matilda, and what Pip finally meant to her.
3. Jamrach’s Menagerie – Carol Birch
You know those books that start in one place – but then take you down an entirely different path you never saw coming? When the penny dropped and I began to realise where Carol Birch was taking this story it blew me away. It also contains one of those instants where you sense a writer in full flight and seeing crazy stuff… I'm thinking of the komodo dragon overboard, gazing around the sea until it begins swimming purposefully for land. (There's a wee nod to this in The Last of Us.)
4. William Golding – Pincher Martin
Pure story. Pure adventure. Surviving on the smallest of things – rainwater, weeds, sea anemones – and on the smallest of places, a rock in the north Atlantic. An amazing evocation of someone's last hours, or maybe last few seconds…
5. Life of Pi – Yann Martell
Why did five publishers turn down the chance to publish Life of Pi? Ok, it was his third book (death to the midlist author! cries the publishing industry) but also I reckon because it starts with a description of the habits of the… eh, three-toed sloth. But this is exactly right for setting up Piscine Patel's voice, which Yann Martell sustains brilliantly for the rest of the book. And what a book. Didn’t make me believe in God, but did make me want to be vegetarian.
My novel The Last of us was published by The Borough Press in April 2016.