Phil Williams's Reviews > Riddley Walker

Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban
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Jun 07, 12

Recommended for: Anyone who wants a book told from another world, as opposed to just being set there.
Read in October, 2010

I was recommended this book by an editor in response to a story I had written, and as soon as I learnt of it I knew that Riddley Walker was both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it is a fully realised work of fiction, a completely crafted experience that takes no short-cuts and places you without compromise in an entirely different world. A curse because that is what every work of fiction should aspire to be, and none is ever likely to achieve so effectively as this, least of all my meagre attempts at writing a romping post-apocalyptic adventure. You step so fully into the shoes of Riddley Walker that you start to think, even speak, like him, and accept his world fully, even if you do not understand it. But to become a part of Riddley Walker's world you have to leave behind your conventional reading style, and really try to read.

To get through this book, you have to be immersed in a new language. It takes a long time to get through, spelling out everything phonetically, but by the time you're done the style becomes second nature. You learn the language without quite knowing how, and when you start to tell your neighbours that it was the dogs as got frendy with you then you won't even realise you're using it. This language is the most striking feature of Riddley Walker, where most readers are likely to get stuck and possibly give up, but it's merely the hulking monstrous shell of a fantastically developed world.

The post-apocalyptic setting of Riddley Walker is different to any other post-apocalypse, or any other fictional setting, because it finds absolutely no bearing in our own. The legends, the history, the tribal habits, all have some basis in something that happened before the disaster, but if Riddley's people can't put the pieces together then you can be damned sure you won't either. Punch and Judy, Saint Eustace and the atomic bomb are among the remnants of the past that are thoroughly misinterpreted in the reconstruction of a unique and memorable society.

With all that going on, basking in the glory of Hoban's insanely developed world, the story could almost be irrelevant. But the journey of Riddley Walker is as compelling and exciting as any you'll find in a less realised post-apocalyptic world. A journey of discovery that never lets you feel at an advantage over the protagonist, an adventure in a threatening world alive with tribal characters fitting to the world they inhabit.

The only fault here is that the book is hard to classify as entertainment. It's that much more than a story. Sometimes it's hard work, and by the end of it you'll feel like you were too immersed in a genuine dystopia for it to have been fun. But it is, if you find obtaining that kind of feeling through literature thrilling. I kind of do. And I kind of resent the fact that I'm unlikely to ever try and write something of its magnitude myself.
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