John Wyndham is one of my favourite writers (his Chrysalids is definitely one of my favourite books) so I fancied re-reading this book when I saw it in the library.
It’s odd how you remember one story and on re-reading a book you find something completely different. I originally remembered the book touching on its end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it scenario and then focussing for most of the book on how the main character works to rebuild his life. This time round then I was surprised to find that much more of the book deals with the actual end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it bit than the rebuilding bit.
Bill is a biologist in 1950’s London, blinded by the sting of a poisonous plant called a Triffid and recuperating in hospital. He is frustrated that the whole world seems to be enjoying a mysterious display of green lights which have lit up the whole world’s skies and caused great excitement and which he cannot see. On the day his bandages are due to come off, he wakes to find London in chaos with everyone appearing to be blind apart from the few people who, like him, missed seeing the green lights.
In a very short period of time the city turns to savagery, with scores of people committing suicide and the rest grabbing and hoarding what they can and trying to hold sighted people prisoner to use as guides. The scene created is one of utter despair as people veer between despair and brutality as they face slow starvation and disease. At the same time, the Triffids, strange plants genetically modified by scientists to provide cheap fuel, turn on the blind population with a vengeance, with their poisoned sting and habit of absorbing dead bodies.
Bill’s natural inclination towards gentlemanliness is challenged as he realises he cannot help everyone and that most people are likely to die regardless of what he does. We then follow him on his journey as he attempts to track down other survivors and make a new life for himself.
Although the book was written in 1951, it does not feel particularly dated. The scenario created is mostly well-imagined and Windham takes the time to explore what the protagonists is going through and what is happening around him. That said, the only thing that does date the book slightly is the language some of the characters use. Every now and again, the characters fall into 1940’s black-and-white movie language:
“It’s silly, but I shall cry when we do go. I shall cry buckets. You mustn’t mind” p.261
This book, and especially its main character, reminded me very much of books like War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells; a very civilised old chap as the hero, a very neat suburban London where all hell is about to be let loose and lots of stereotypes – working class people who speak like Dick Van Dyke does in Mary Poppins and naive posh sorts who are good at getting themselves killed.
Nevertheless an enjoyable and absorbing enough read.