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4.0 out of 5 stars Zombie free post apocalyptic debut, 20 July 2013
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This review is from: A Departure (Paperback)
A Departure is the debut novel by Tom Ward who was the 2012 winner of the GQ Norman Mailer Award for student writing. An award that seeks to nurture young British talent using Norman Mailer's contribution to American literature as a guiding force. A very British post apocalyptic story, A Departure has obviously (and understandably) been compared to Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Other literary giants cited for comparison include Hemingway, and Ballard. From this information we may reasonably expect a particularly masculine literary take on a near future dystopia. But while the influence of these writers is readily discernible, there is also a very noticeable youthfulness about this novel, and not just because the primary character is eighteen. It is, as the blurb states, a coming of age story as much as it is a post apocalyptic road journey, it owes a debt to films like 28 Days Later, as much as to literary works, and it is also something of a romance. But is it actually any good?

Well, the short answer is yes, it is. It is certainly a promising first novel. A Departure wastes no time in bringing on the apocalypse, with an account of how the vast majority of people suddenly died from an apparently unknown airborne contaminant, sketched out in the opening chapters. The reader is furnished with enough information to understand what they need to about the situation that Michael, a young survivor from the North East of England, now finds himself in. Ultimately this novel isn't really concerned about the why or the how of its apocalypse, it is focused instead on Michael's transition from boy to man in a drastically altered world. A transition that is at times difficult to discern, and I think therefore not unrealistic. After all in the absence of formal initiatory rites of passage the demarcation points for such developments are rarely obvious.

At the start of the novel Michael is really quite self absorbed, and single-minded in his determination to travel south to look for answers, and although he retains much of this single-mindedness throughout, the circumstances he encounters along the way force him to adopt a position of responsibility for others on several occasions. The first person he encounters in this capacity is a middle aged women named, Judith. A prudish and sheltered religious type with little practical worldly experience. Judith forces herself upon Michael as a companion early in the story following an ugly incident in a village close to where Michael begins his journey. She is presented as a particularly irritating character from Michael's point of view. Ward does a very good job of painting this relationship as one in which Judith, despite being the elder, is in many ways the child in this pairing, creating numerous situations in which Michael is forced to take the lead or to assume responsibility for her well being, despite often wanting nothing more than to be shot of her.

There are several other characters who band with Michael as he travels south intent on reaching the coast and heading to France. David who presents himself as a former school teacher, and Zanna a young philosophy student. Each of these encounters in some way forces Michael to accept additional responsibility, to take the lead, to man up if you like. At least one in a particularly unpleasant if not unforeseen set of circumstances.

It is worth pointing out that this book is filled with nasty incidents of one kind or another. Here in particular the influence of McCarthy's novel can be felt, in that it is largely an unremittingly bleak portrayal of human nature in a post social collapse environment. But there are a few examples, most notable as the book nears its conclusion, of human compassion and generosity.

One of the things about reviews of post apocalyptic fiction I often find, is that people naturally project their values and expectations of what such a society would most likely look like, and how people would behave following rapid and drastic social collapse. The question arises, is such a bleak portrayal of human decent into feral anarchy and barbarism, in a relatively short space of time, realistic? And does it matter? The first question is not one that I think can be answered definitively, there are far too many variables. But I think a case could easily be put forward for why it might transpire that way, particularly in the large urban centres; and areas of social and economic blight exist where some would argue a form of feral barbarism already holds sway. The question of whether it matters can really only be answered in the context of how effectively the whole thing comes together. What matters is that it does so. Is this book realistic? Yes, it is realistic within its own bleak vision. And that realism works to enforce the journey that Michael makes, his departure from the life he knew, to the young man he must become, without any rules or structures left to guide him, and in a society that has descended into a violent free for all. And then there are the values that he holds to throughout this process. I don't want to give too much away, but as I mentioned previously this novel can also be read as a love story or romance.

A Departure is not without its flaws, there are some minor technical issues with spelling and grammar which seem to have slipped through the editing process, most notably in the early section of the book. There are perhaps some issues with pacing. The novel starts off bleak, and throws ever more desperate and despondent circumstances at the reader, but somehow it feels like it doesn't really find its stride until the last third. Many of the circumstantial aspects of the novel are not unfamiliar in the rapidly expanding canon of post apocalyptic storytelling. There are a few nods to some well known classics of the genre too, or so it seemed to me. What is different, at least regarding the material I'm familiar with, is that its focus is one young man's coming of age. The perspective is that of a youth on the cusp of manhood. Tom Ward himself is a young writer, and with A Departure I would agree with Tony Parsons in saying that here we definitely have a very talented young British writer, and one whose future work I'll be paying attention to. I must confess also, to being a huge fan of many of those same writers who are clearly among his influences. If you are looking for a different focus, and some zombie free British post apocalyptic fiction, then you should definitely consider what is ultimately a moving and memorable novel.
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Location: London - UK

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