‘When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.’
I recently read John Wyndham’s 1951 novel The Day of the Triffids for the third time. What happened was I casually picked up the book, opened it to the first page and read that first line.
Big mistake. Huge.
It was the end of October and I’d been thinking I would do National Novel Writing Month again this year (my second time) and how I want to write speculative fiction. So I’d started brainstorming and making a little reading list. Then I picked up TDotT and that was it for me. (I’d therefore like to personally blame John Wyndham for my lack of effort in NaNoWriMo this year.)
I don’t reread many books – seriously, who has the time? Plus working in publishing tends to make reading for pleasure a slightly less pleasurable experience (‘I found a typo!’ ‘Why the hell did they pick this font?’ ‘Hmm, I think the author used that adjective 100 pages ago’, etc.) But there are some books that once in a blue moon when I pick them up, I have to reread.
The Day of the Triffids is Wyndham’s ‘famous story of a world dominated by monstrous, stinging plants’. Okay, it doesn’t sound that scary (last time I read this book, I backed it up with The Road and yes, this book is nowhere near scary. Thanks for the nightmares, Cormac McCarthy). And the triffids would have remained a safe though ungainly feature of London gardens and parks, had some pretty lights not appeared in the sky one night and triggered a sequence of events that brings civilisation to its knees.
What is it about TDotT that I love? As mentioned above, right from the beginning it’s terrific. You can see how the opening’s influenced modern-day sci-fi/speculative fiction – 28 Days Later and Walking Dead are two examples that spring instantly to mind, where the main character wakes up in hospital and ‘while they were sleeping’ shit had got real. The waking up, not knowing where people are, the disorientation and realisation that everything has changed. For the worse. Oh my god for the worse.
Bill Masen’s situation is intensified by the fact he’s recovering from an eye operation after a triffid-related incident. (This will become relevant later.) Sadly he therefore missed out on the spectacular comets that lit up the sky the previous night and everyone wouldn’t shut up about. Poor Bill.
He waits impatiently for someone to come and remove his bandages and reveal whether or not he can see but . . . nobody comes. (Go Wyndham, tapping into that deep-seated fear – what if the world ended and you were one of the survivors but with a disability that hugely increased the odds against you?)
Bill eventually carefully removes the bandages and ventures out to find desperate scenes – everyone seems to have gone blind overnight. A number have already given up hope, taking to the bottle or stepping out a high window (if they can actually find one).
It’s not all about the triffids. In fact, like a lot of speculative fiction, this book isn’t so much about the threat – the triffids, in this case – but about how people deal with the tragedy. And there are other threats here too: despair, hunger and that old favourite, man’s inhumanity to man.
This book is not fast-paced, wall-to-wall action, but is incredibly tense in other ways. And I love the quieter moments where the characters have a chance to reflect on the big picture of what’s happened and what it means. The moment where they have to face their dystopian future head on:
‘Quite consciously I began saying goodbye to it all. The sun was low. Towers, spires, facades of Portland stone were white or pink against the dimming sky. More fires had broken out here and there . . . Quite likely, I told myself, I would never in my life see any of these familiar buildings after tomorrow.’
This novel is a perfect example of the genre known as ‘cosy catastrophe’, which I didn’t know was a thing. Bill and his new friend Josella spend a fair amount of time in an enviable position – firstly, they are two of the few people who can see, and secondly, they can see where luxury pads and gourmet small goods are. It ain’t all bad. Their last night in London is spent holed up in a sweet suite, dressed to the nines (well, Josella is – women, eh) and pigging out. Oh okay, it’s not all a walk in the triffid-filled park:
‘Night magnified the quiet of the city, making the sounds which broke it the more desolate. From time to time voices rose from the street, edgy and brittle with hysteria. Once there came a freezing scream which seemed to revel horribly in its release from sanity. Somewhere not far away a sobbing went on endlessly, hopelessly.’
Way to spoil the mood. Other passion killers for Bill and Josella include the time they’re starting over with a bunch of survivors and cluey Josella susses out how exactly they’re going to have to repopulate the earth. (Hint: Bill’s going to be a busy man.)
Bill Masen’s a competent protagonist – he’s a man of the times, a bit of an everyman who, luckily, has a lot of experience working with triffids and just doesn’t trust the damn plants. He’s not really an action man, but that’s alright; he gets things done. He also happens to have anti-triffid guns. He’s a guy you want to stick with when things go south in a triffid-related manner.
Josella is a woman of the 1950s but although a bit annoying at times she’s a pretty good heroine. She’s quick thinking, a tad feisty and she knows how to look good in ski pants. Bill indulges in a bit of quaint misogyny by describing her (she ‘prattles on’ etc), but it’ll be a few decades until Lt Ellen Ripley et al hit the sci-fi scene, so let’s take what we can get.
Aside from The Day of the Triffids, off the top of my head a few others I reread are: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. I’m curious to know what books other people return to time and again.