My Monday: Memoirs of a Survivor

I’ve got some pretty cool reviews lined up this week, but I just couldn’t bring myself to skip My Monday, especially since this week is a spooky pick.

I really like Halloween, and we’ve had a great time letting the kids pick out their costumes. We had a ball trick or treating this afternoon, and I had fun last night chatting to a friend about our favourite horror films of all time.

It got me thinking about some of the scarier books I’ve read over the years, and of course one of the first that came to mind was a novel that sits in my top five all-time favourites…Doris Lessing’s The Memoirs of a Survivor. 

It’s not a book of blood and gore, and it’s not horror in the same sense as the novels of, for instance, Stephen King or Clive Barker. It is, nonetheless terrifying in it’s confronting recollection of a dystopian society where:

“…reality is the everyday of a few years hence, when barbarism is what is normal, and each of us has to fight for survival – men, women, and even little children who are so brutalised by necessity they are more frightening than the ferocious adults. From her windows the narrator watches things fall apart, sees the migrating hordes seethe past in search of safety, the shelter, the good life that is always somewhere else.”

At the time, I wondered to myself, if this was how Londoners had felt during the recent London riots, as they watched news reports identifying disturbingly young looters committing theft and voilence.

As much as I like zombies, brains and gore (Dawn of the Dead, I am Legend, and 28 Days Later are amongst my favs) it is the horror of a post-apocolyptic world that gets under my skin the most. I recently worked out that this fascination started when I was a kid, when I read Z for Zachariah, by Robert C. O’Brien.  It’s since gone on to mean that my collection includes charming tales such as The Road, I am Legend and movies like Children of Men, 12 Monkeys and so on.

There are a few elements that make The Memoirs of a Survivor so memorable for me. Firstly, it’s rare that the protagonist in these types of stories is a woman. The unnamed female narrator’s placement at the centre of this story lends a compassion, a reflectiveness and a sense of heartbreak not usually seen in these types of novels. Her care for Emily throughout the story makes this novel multidimensional, dealing not only with disaster, but equally with issues of responsibility, nurturing and loyalty.

Secondly, a complete picture of the disaster which has brought about this dystopia is left unclear, making this post-apocolyptic memoir all the more powerful. Lessing’s cautionary tale could easily be interpreted as a warning against scenarios of war, extreme civil unrest or environmental catastrophe. One thing that is certain is that the trauma and subsequent brutality is unavoidable:

“I shall begin this account at a time before we were talking about ‘it’. We were still in the stage of generalised unease. Things weren’t too good, they were even pretty bad. A great many things were bad, breaking down, giving up, or ‘giving cause for alarm’ as the newscasts might put it. But ‘it’, in the sense of something felt as an immediate threat which could be not be averted, no.”

Finally, Doris Lessing is an absolute master at the genre of magic realism. Her fantasy is so matter-of-fact, so seamlessly integrated with the everyday that the real and fantastic become one. The reader is expected to completely accept all that is put in front of them, as fact. This mastery of a very challenging genre is a delight.

This is a smart book, a sensitive treatment of a sorrowful theme. Lessing is an incredibly talented author, and unless the world comes to a horrible end, I’m sure I’ve not read this book for the last time.

Do you like scary books? What was the last scary novel you read?

Join us: Facebook and Twitter