Thursday, 16 July 2009

‘Snakeskin Road’ – James Braziel (Bantam Books)

I don’t read a lot of post apocalyptic fiction which is really odd as I inevitably enjoy reading the stuff when I pick it up. Not only do you get to see how the world might end (which is always good) but you also get to see how the survivors might cope in the aftermath. This in particular is what draws me in, the exploration and development of a character fighting to make their way (and find their place) in a world that will never be the same again.
‘Snakeskin Road’ looked like it ticked all those boxes, as far as post-apocalyptic fiction goes, and as it was a relatively short read (three hundred and twenty three pages) I thought I’d give it a go...

In the near future, a widening hole in the ozone layer has turned much of South Eastern America into a desert scoured by biting winds. When a beleaguered government cancels all exit visas (out of affected areas) the only way into the Midwestern ‘Free Zones’ is via indentured servitude in the farms, casinos and brothels but there will always be those who seek to make a quick dollar by chasing down these ‘deserters’ and taking them back where they came from.
Jennifer, and her young ward, must travel the ‘Snakeskin Road’ (a network of forgotten highways used by those who traffic human cargo) if they are to have any chance of working for the money they need to get to Chicago and a new life with Jennifer’s mother. However, it’s a race against time that they don’t even realise they’re racing as a bounty hunter is hot on their trail...

Braziel paints a grim and compelling picture of an America reeling under the effects of a major environmental disaster and nowhere is this more evident than on the faces of the people who are bearing the brunt of it. Descriptions of life in the border town of Birmingham make it clear that the government has lost control of the situation and is left with no other option than to shut down the border and try to contain the situation. As a result of this, the reader is taken on a journey through a range of human emotion that starts with optimism, continues through outright denial and settles with grim acceptance and the knowledge that there is nowhere else to go but forwards.

The scene set is so grim that I found myself wanting to get away to safety as much as the main players did. At the same time though it’s all credit to Braziel that I couldn’t stop reading, no matter how low humanity sank throughout the disaster.

There’s a real sense of stagnancy about the book, both in a good way and a way that’s perhaps not so good... The horror of the disaster is unrelenting and there is never any indication that it will change. This reinforcement constantly drives home how hopeless things are and that there is nothing better to come. Maybe ‘stagnant’ isn’t such a good word to describe an approach that has such positive results, for the book, but in light of the landscape things are set against it seemed apt.

What isn’t so good though is the way that the stagnancy of the setting seems to also find its way into the characters as well. While there is definite movement towards a goal, I never got the sense that Jennifer and Mazy were changing as a result. Maybe this is to be expected in a scenario that demands single-mindedness and fixing all your attention on one thing; maybe there just isn’t the time to grow in other directions. It did leave me feeling a little non-plussed though that everything facing Jennifer and Mazy didn’t force them outside their very narrow viewpoints.
As was the case with ‘Twelve’ (reviewed yesterday) I also found that Jennifer’s recollections didn’t add a lot to the plot at hand although they did serve to flesh her character out in a good way, adding a more personal element to life under the hole in the ozone layer.

‘Snakeskin Road’ is an occasionally frustrating yet ultimately compelling read of a post-apocalyptic America and the people who must struggle to live in it. I suspect that it’s also a story that will stay in my head for a long time to come and that’s the mark of a tale well told...

Eight and a Half out of Ten

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