One by Conrad Williams

January 14, 2011

This is you. This is now. And your number is up.

For reasons that are too complicated to touch upon here I have long been a fan of apocalyptic and post apocalyptic fiction. Novels about the end of the world have always sparked my imagination and over the years I have read a fair number. Some, like Swan Song by Robert McCammon, and Blood Crazy Simon Clark, I keep going back to again and again. I always look forward to reading a new example of the genre and so was happy when I finally managed to pick up a copy of One by Conrad Williams.

The novel follows deep sea diver Richard Jane, in the immediate aftermath of an extinction level event as he tries to travel from the north of Scotland to London in order to find his son, Stanley.  The country’s infrastructure has been swept away in an instant, and rather than hours, it takes him weeks to get back home. Every step of the way Jane is presented with some fresh horror. Throughout the journey, Jane comes to realise the true scope of the tragedy that has occurred. Towns and cities are ruined, survivors are few and far between, and some of those he meets have a tenuous grasp on their sanity at best.

The book is split into two parts, and in the second part the narrative has jumped ahead ten years. Jane is in London and still hopelessly looking for Stanley. In the intervening time Stan’s memory has become Jane’s emotional and psychological lynchpin. Meanwhile dust created during the apocalypse covers the outdoors and has caused the creation of creatures nicknamed Skinners. They have risen from bloated corpses of the dead and prey on the existing survivors.

Toward the book’s climactic end Jane is forced to confront the truth about his journey and the new world he finds himself in. Be warned the final chapters of the novel feature some particularly unpleasant scenes but they are necessary as they provide the emotional punch needed to conclude the tale.

The novel ends on a pitch perfect, bittersweet note but it offers the hope that humanity will endure. Having never read any of his other work I was impressed with Conrad Williams’ writing. Each chapter builds upon Jane’s initial sense of dread, and there is a real sense that the protagonist’s story is leading somewhere and will have a definitive conclusion.

In many ways the character of Jane is a blank canvas. As a reader I found it easy to project how I would feel in the situations he finds himself in. The other characters in the novel are relegated to secondary roles but this didn’t seem like a bad thing. I don’t think they required much fleshing out as the story is so strongly focused on one man. The questions that Jane asks himself certainly provoked a degree of introspection on my part.

At its heart, One is a story about parents, children and family. What lengths would you go to in order to save your family? How far would you travel? Richard Jane is every parent while Stanley is every child. In my opinion some of the best horror comes from placing ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. One has this in spades. Jane is forced to do anything he can in order to survive. If it came down to it would you be able to do the same?

Insightful, exciting and tinged with sadness the only thing I regret about the novel is that I wish I had read it sooner.

Conrad Williams next novel, Loss of Separation, is due for release in March.

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