Monday, 2 August 2010

‘The Unit’ – Terry DeHart (Orbit)

What is the one thing that I have in common with around 90% of the people who stop by here for a read? Apart from the fact that we all love speculative fiction here (apart from my Mum that is but I’ll take the page views wherever I can get them!) I’d say the one thing we’ve all got in common is the size of our ‘to read’ piles. Cue loads of ‘mine is bigger than yours’ comments, does anyone here want to admit to ‘reading pile’ envy...? ;o)
I used have various schedules to get to the bottom of my ‘to read’ pile. These days though, choices are made very much on the basis of how shiny the cover is and how likely I am to be able to keep hold of it on a packed train. Terry Dehart’s ‘The Unit’ held up well on both these scores but ended up being a lot more... There’s always something to be said for picking a book up at random and giving it a go. Sometimes you will discover a real gem.

The bombs have fallen on America and now it’s time for people to make out the best they can in the aftermath. On the face of things, the Sharpe family are ahead of the game already; Jerry Sharpe is a former marine who is determined to use all his skills and knowledge to keep his family together... whatever happens.
It’s never as simple as that though, especially when the other three members of your family have their own ideas and aspirations for the future. Add a psychotic bunch of escaped teenage prisoners into the mix and things can only get worse. And all the while there’s a nuclear winter on the way... Can a strong sense of family overcome these pretty major obstacles?

If I’m handing out awards at the end of the year then ‘best post-apocalyptic fiction’ will undoubtedly go to Alden Bell’s ‘The Reapers are the Angels’. ‘The Unit’ pushed this excellent work all the way though and is a thoroughly engrossing piece of post apocalyptic fiction in it’s own right.

DeHart lets the story unfold through the viewpoints of several characters and, over the course of the book, I was left wondering if this approach was spread a little too thin in terms of delivering the plot.
There were a couple of characters I didn’t get on with (I’m looking at you here Melanie and your constant refusal to accept the reality of your new surroundings...) but I found that while Dehart stayed with the main characters the plot remained tight and flowed smoothly. Using Melanie’s character as the example again, I couldn’t agree with the way that she conducted herself at all but what she did actually contributed to the story and pushed it in a certain direction. When he spent time with peripheral characters though, it proved to be to the detriment of the book. These viewpoints may have fleshed out the background a little but didn’t actually seem to do anything for the plot itself. In fact, I’d say that these viewpoints slowed things down just when they didn’t need to be.

Once I got past this though, I found a lot to recommend ‘The Unit’ to anyone who likes a literary stroll through a post nuclear landscape. DeHart really knows how to tap that well of bleak resignation that you would expect to find in such a landscape and the people travelling through it. The landscape itself is full of wreckage, whether it’s manmade or the remnants of nature that are left, and you’re left with the sense that the world has to just get on with what is has left. You can’t go for a paragraph without being reminded of just what has happened and this constant build up really lays the atmosphere on thick, just the way it should be. Just when you think it can’t get any worse... you get the radioactive snow and DeHart gives us the full force of such a winter. You can almost feel it.

DeHart goes for the same kind of approach with his characters; people who (for the most part) are resigned to the world not changing any time soon and resolved to make the best of it in order to survive. It’s here though that DeHart mixes things up a bit with varying reactions as to how survival can be achieved; whether it’s through living with what comes to hand or just taking it by force. The contrast between the two ideologies drives the plot forward in the best possible way and further exploration reveals that they’re not so different after all. At the end of the day, it’s all about survival...

A grim background with grim situations to overcome forces all of the characters to be constantly on top of things if they are going to make it through alive. This intensity is reflected in the relationships between certain people, the Sharpe family in particular, and gives the reader a real insight into seemingly normal interactions. DeHart is telling the story from inside people’s heads and makes the most of his time while he’s there.

‘The Unit’ is the tale of a family stretched to its limit and if you’re anything like me you’ll be around to see what shape they’re in by the end of the book. The post apocalypse hasn’t felt so ‘post apocalyptic’ in a long while...

1 comment:

Silver Thistle said...

Thanks for a great review!

..another one added to the TBR mountain. Thanks :)