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Heart breaking yet beautiful story about the love between a father and his son in a seemingly desolate world
on 12 March 2017
I knew very little about Cormac Mcarthy prior to reading this book. I'm going through a phase of consuming post apocalyptic stories and after much deliberation I thought I'd give it try. I'm so glad I wasn't put off by some of the negative reviews. The Road is beautiful, thought provoking, compelling and life affirming. I hesitate to say it was a pleasure to read given the tone and subject matter but I recommend this book to anyone who is prepared to engage their brain and open their heart.
McCarthy's writing emotionally tied me to the characters without the usual writing conventions I'd expect, life doesn't necessarily provide us with nice neat answers or resolutions to things especially in this case where nothing is normal and will never be so again. Why worry about fripperies when all human life has been cleaved down to the barest essentials, the novel's style and prose reflects that in many ways. I was fully immersed in the story from the start, it's not a long book, it was easy to follow the various exchanges and the story flowed beautifully. But be warned it's emotionally draining and very bleak, it hurt my heart to read some of the passages, this truly frightening world McCarthy brought forth will live me for a long time.
Forget the whys and wherefores of how the earth reached this hellish state, that's honestly not important. The Road is basically a love story between a man and his son, McCarthy dedicates this book to his own little boy at the start and it's abidingly clear that the primary focus for the reader should be on this relationship and its development, it positively burns through the pages. Man and boy are nameless (as are most of the characters we meet) but it didn't lessen the power of his writing to convey the incredible depth of their love and reliance on each other.
What we do learn is that there was an apocalyptic event around the time of the boy's birth, its clear the effects were utterly devastating, life appears to have been extinguished save for a few pitiless souls left to walk the barren ash choked wasteland killing, stealing and scavenging for what's left of any canned/preserved food or worse resorting to cannibalism. They trudge day after day through a world that appears stripped of life, of colour and a future for humankind. The boy knows nothing of the time before the tragedy, living in constant fear, cold and hunger for him is normality for the father it's much worse, a desperate sadness at what has been lost that he is loathe to articulate, he remembers his old life in dreams and brief recollections and it's from these that we get further insights into the past with his wife and family.
The man is getting sicker by the day as they travel through the seemingly eternal grey, bleak, inhospitable, cold wasteland along a road. There is no sun, they are fighting constant starvation, the days are growing darker and colder as if heralding a nuclear style winter. They are moving south towards the coast as the father knows they can't survive another winter where they've been living. It's better for the father to have some goal to reach in order to hold on to his sanity and hope for the future and his son's well being so they keep on the move. Hope, humanity, goodness and faith are key here it's about "keeping the fire" as the father calls it, they are "the good guys" and his son demands reassurance of this fact at various stages and this sustains both of them despite the apparent desperateness of their situation.
The father is deeply mistrusting of anyone they meet with his fearsome desire to protect his child who he looks up to almost as a vessel of goodness in this hellish world. When certain incidents happen the boy gets very upset and begins to fear they are no longer the good guys, this schism reflects more on the general fear of any parent desperately wanting to equip their child with the tools for survival and independence but fighting the need to control and fiercely protect. To compound the issue, the father realises he's running out of time but equally the son carries the burden of knowing that soon he will be left alone to fend for himself, this forms an unbearable emotional strain between them.
The tenderness the father expresses towards his son was deeply moving, despite the sparseness of the dialogue between them, the father is only still alive because of his son who is equally dependent on him. His fear and anguish over the boy at key moments almost had me in tears, the future is left opaque and undecided, it may be hopeless it may not, the reader is left to surmise for themselves many things and that's how it should be. McCarthy's gift in his writing is to keenly show in a very painful and raw way how loving someone can be and that the strength found in that is sometimes enough to carrying on.
The rather stark, simple exchanges between father and son I found curiously moving and heartfelt and there are many touching little moments described. Also, the father is constantly tormented wondering if the time comes could he kill his child to spare him almost certain defilement. I can only imagine how much this story would resonate and especially if you're a parent. "You have my whole heart", the father says at one point, such simple honest beauty in that line!
The Road shows us the strength of love and how in our darkest moments it can bind and hold people together against extreme circumstances that should crush the human spirit. Yet some if us choose to go on even if in the end the universe makes our existence appear almost meaningless. I can see why this book won acclaim.