Friday, May 09, 2008

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham


My copy of The Chrysalids by John Wyndham is the Penguin Books edition published in 1955. This is the second book I've read in the Once Upon a Time Challenge.

As this is science fiction and I’d read The Kraken Wakes, about an alien invasion of Earth and I know that The Day of the Triffids (which I haven’t read) is about grotesque animal eating plants, I was expecting The Chrysalids to be about monster insects hatching out of pupae. It isn’t.

It’s a post-apocalyptic novel set in an imaginary Labrador. The people have vague recollections of the “Old People” who lived before the Tribulation (maybe a nuclear war), which they believe God sent to punish the population for their sins. The society they live in now is strictly governed by a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible, one of the few books that survived the Tribulation. Anything that deviates from the Norm had to be rooted out and destroyed or sent to the Fringes. This applied to people, animals and plants. David Strorm has grown up in a house where the walls are covered in texts such as,
“THE NORM IS THE WILL OF GOD”, “THE DEVIL IS THE FATHER OF DEVIATION” and “WATCH THOU FOR THE MUTANT!”

So when he realises that his friend Sophie has six toes he is worried, and with reason. Sophie is not the only deviant from the Norm, David himself and a group of other young people have telepathic powers and can tune in to each other’s thoughts. When they realise that Petra, David’s little sister is developing even stronger telepathic abilities, David and Petra and his friends flee to the Fringes, where they expect to find fearsome mutations, but hope to find sanctuary. Petra’s long-range telepathy puts them in touch with a woman in Sealand, on the other side of the world, who promises to rescue them.

Wyndham’s story still has relevance today, with its central theme of intolerance of anyone or anything that does not conform to what is considered to be “normal”. Intolerance based on what a group of people “know” to be the truth is always scary, especially when they persecute others who believe or think differently. The question of identity is also explored - what it is to be an individual and also part of society. His characters are real people, the story is compelling, and I had to read on to find out what happened as the tension built.

The title, I suppose, comes from the analogy with the evolution of insects from grubs to the adult stage. The people of Labrador are stuck in the chrysalis stage; they have not evolved and do not want to change. David and his friends are changing however and moving towards a more advanced stage of humanity. As the woman from Sealand tells them:
The essential quality of life is living; the essential quality of living is change; change is evolution; and we are part of it.
It’s a book I should like to re-read, now that I know the story. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

6 comments:

Cath said...

It's such a long time since I read any John Wyndham. I do remember that The Chrysalids and The Kraken Wakes were my favourites but very little of your review rang any bells so it's clearly time I reread some of his books. I'm guessing I probably read them as teenager! Excellent review.

Lisa said...

Oooh, this does sound good. Unfortunately the book does have relevance to today. There have been several examples in the US just recently of how things can go wrong when people adhere to strict interpretations and shun any individuality. It's quite scary to say the least.

Danielle said...

I have never heard of this one, though I do have Day of the Triffids. This sounds really good, too. It is scary when a book written so long ago has such relevance today!

Table Talk said...

I think I've already told you somewhere else how much I loved this novel as a teenager. I think it by far the best of Wyndham's work, mainly because he does so perfectly capture a universal weakness in human nature. I must go back and re-read it because from your reaction it sounds as thought it will stand the test of time.

Maxine said...

I read and loved all John Wyndham's books as a teenager (like Cath!). I have bought this one and a couple of others for my daughters, with a view to possibly reading them again. I do remember enjoying this one very much -- but I liked them all -- so maybe, as I have a copy in the house, I will read it again in the light of your excellent review.

C. B. James said...

Sounds like a terrific book. Thanks for the review.

I liked Day of the Triffids but honestly never even thought to look for other books by Wyndham.

Sounds like excellent summer reading.