The Death of Grass by John Christopher
The Death of Grass is a (sort of) post-apocalyptic novel first published in 1956 by John Christopher. Set in the not too distant future (from the 1950s) the story revolves a group of people trying to escape London to travel north to Cumbria. In this future a virus is spreading throughout the world killing all grasses, including grass crops. The virus starts in China and slowly spreads across Asia leading to massive famine. When the virus hits the United Kingdom it is thought that scientists have found a way to eliminate it, but this is not the case. When the government plan an extreme solution to impending famine throughout the UK, a group of friends set off to Cumbria where one of their party has a brother and a farming safe hold for them to retreat to.
I read this book for book group and started reading it with no expectations, not reading anything about the book before I started. I didn’t know what type of story to expect or any of the main plots/themes of the novel; I just downloaded it to my Kindle and started. I am pleased that I read it this way, I enjoyed the book for its story, and though the characters were rather old fashioned, I can forgive this to a degree due to when it was written.
The Death of Grass starts out as quite a quaint novel, sedate even. The reader is introduced to the various characters that go about their daily lives, discussing what is happening to other parts of the world. The standard “It’ll never happen to us” and “We’ll be ok because we’re British” lines are rolled out, the novels cast very much distanced from the realities of the virus coming to the UK. When things start to decline, very slowly at first, the plan is hatched to move to Cumbria just when the time is right. One member of the group can obtain inside information about the true state of the country and what measures the government may impose prior to any action, giving them all a head start on the masses.
After receiving information about an impending catastrophic event, the group decide to travel north immediately and the book then outlines the sharp decline in moral values that the group of ‘refugees’ holds on their quite short journey. The rapidity and way in which the characters change whilst travelling is quite shocking; moving from the very stereotypical view of 1950s English men and women to mercenaries, willing to carry out anything in order to reach their destination.
I did enjoy this book and had it not been for book group I may have never heard of it, let alone read it. The books simplicity and not too futuristic take on the world make it quite realistic, it has a really good point to make about the nature of humans and how some people react when everything they have is on the line. The novel is violent in parts and portrays some of its characters in a very harsh way; sometimes I felt that this was a little too cold and unemotional. I said that I could forgive some of the books old fashioned characters and their views, especially towards women, but the book in some parts is extremely chauvinistic and often flippant with extremely violent and sexually violent behaviour (none of this is gratuitously described though). Some of the characters views and behaviours were abhorrent, maybe this was intentionally portrayed, but I fear that all was not.
I would recommend this book to other readers, and I would definitely recommend this book to other book groups. We discussed this book for well over an hour, talking about the different themes within the book. We had a very good discussion on war and its atrocities; we also discussed the altruistic behaviour of some people during war times, all within the context of the novel. A good read with more to say than first appearances would suggest.