The Road by Cormac McCarthy

We’re delighted to bring you our first book review from the Leith Library Book Group. December’s book was ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy and this review was written by Marylyn Hill.

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I wouldn’t have been surprised if this book had been written in the 1960s or 70s, during the Cold War when the threat of nuclear attack permeated life, story & film. In fact it was written in 2007. It’s a post-apocalyptic view of the USA (and presumably the whole world – we are not told) as seen by a father and young son trudging along from somewhere to nowhere.

Environmentalist writer George Monbiot described The Road as “the most important environmental book ever written” because of the accurate and compelling detail of how the world might look after a global catastrophic disaster with no sun, no agriculture, no biosphere. Read his article in the Guardian here.

But, with no political analysis of events leading up to this disaster (nuclear bombs? global warming?) McCarthy is offering a description of a dystopian society, not a prescription for pre-emptive action.

Setting

The book is set a number of years after the catastrophe happened and there is very little left. No sunlight can get through the grey ash cloud. There is no agriculture, no industry, no technology, no animals. It is a heavy, cold, grey picture, detailing the hardship and fear experienced on this unending, almost unendurable trek.

Language and Style

The language and style reflect the bleakness. McCarthy uses fairly short paragraphs throughout – rather than chapters – to underline the sense of never completing anything nor arriving anywhere. Descriptions are vivid and graphic – sometimes disturbing.

His lack of punctuation of can’t and don’t (cant & dont), which initially irritated me, emphasises the lack of structure and rules in this new society where there seem to be few “good guys” (as the father & son frequently confirm to each other that they are).

We share their constant fear that gangs roaming around will capture, abuse, kill and maybe even eat them, as they are doing to others. The fact that the father and son are not given names and are often referred to as “the boy/the man” seems to accentuate even more the breakdown in their lives.

What did we think?

Group members all agreed that “enjoyed” was not the appropriate word for The Road.

One group member remarked that at least one of the conversations in The Road has echoes of Becket’s ‘Waiting for Godot’ where communication is very restricted and odd. At one point the man muses on how easy it might be to forget words that are no longer used and the names of things that no longer exist.

Apart from one short episode when the father discovers an un-looted underground bunker (stocked out in the 1970s in anticipation of nuclear disaster?) where for a few days they eat plenty and stay warm, it is unremittingly grim!

The father’s constant suspicion of everyone they meet is occasionally balanced by the young boy’s sensitivity and kind heartedness to others on the road and is a cheering reminder of basic human goodness.

However, there is no rose-tinted or optimistic ending – this is a world with no prospects, a road with no direction or end. Even the good guys have no real future.

Marylyn Hill

We’d love you to join the conversation online by adding your comments below. January’s Book is a Scottish Fiction Lucky Dip. Find out more about the Book Group here.

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About Leith Library Book Group

We meet on the 2nd Tuesday of the month at 6.45pm at Leith Library
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7 Responses to The Road by Cormac McCarthy

  1. mwheelaghan says:

    Hi Marylyn and Leith Library Book Groupers. What a great review. I have started to read this book so many times and wanted to like it because I LOVED No Country For Old Men but The ROAD is, as you rightly say, so very grim. I don’t much like sentimental books or romances but I do like a little bit of a happy ending, which this hasn’t got. Would you say it was worth the effort? If so, maybe I’ll save it for a sunny day. Thanks again for the review, really well put and I’m looking forward to hearing what your Scottish Lucky Dip is – and what you think of it 🙂

  2. Great review. I think I must be in a small minority of people who found The Road a really uplifting book. The conviction that some human decency, no matter how isolated and small, can survive such hardship and desolation, I thought was a very positive message. As the man and boy say to each other – ‘we carry the light’. And it does have a happy ending – relatively speaking. But you’ll have to finish it to get there!

  3. Kate says:

    I saw the film and agree that ‘enjoy’ wasn’t the word for that either! Thanks for the review though, it’s a good sign when a book sounds grim but you still want to read it becasue the review is so well written. I’d also recommend The Death of Grass by John Christopher, I read that recently and think it sounds as though it would provide good discussion after reading The Road.

  4. Great review for a great book!

  5. shadow8pro says:

    “But, with no political analysis of events leading up to this disaster.”

    McCarthy writes in the Road: ‘“A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions.”

    Now, while this isn’t much to go on, it is something. Having read all of McCarthy’s work (the Road 5 times) I would argue that this is a “natural” event, that is an asteroid or some such. His recognition of nature’s indifference to humanity’s existence is well known and I see this as an extension of that ideology.

  6. Thanks for all the comments on my (first ever) book review. A “natural” global disaster would account for the apparent absence of any remaining organised authority – at local or national level – which might have been expected had there been any warning of the event. In the 60s & 70s there were secret nuclear bunkers in major towns where civic leaders intended to protect themselves and re-establish some sort of ordered society(although, at the time, many of us thought this was delusional!).

    Marylyn

  7. Hm, that book is lying about in my sister’s room. I think I might read it now.

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