When Louise Lawrence's young adult novel Children of the Dust was first published in 1985 I would have been its target audience. During my teenage years nuclear Armageddon was just around the corner — and even though I grew up in Australia, far from the machinations of the Cold War, we were still mired in the debate over French nuclear testing in the South Pacific.
I'm glad I didn't read Lawrence's novel at the time though — it would have fed my paranoia and teenage anxiety and upset me greatly.
A tale of the apocalypse
The story is set in England and is about as apocalyptic as they come. It's divided into three parts — titled Sarah, Ophelia and Simon — and spans three generations over half a century. (Sarah and Ophelia are half-sisters who never meet, and Simon is Ophelia's grandson.)
When the book opens the world has just erupted into nuclear war and bombs have been dropped on Hamburg and Leningrad. In the UK, Bristol Radio reports that London, Cardiff, Cheltenham and Gloucester have been bombed. Birmingham is next in line.
Sarah, sent home from school, takes cover in the kitchen of her Cotswolds home with her step-mother, Veronica, and her two half-siblings, Catherine and William. Her father, a lecturer at Bristol University, doesn't have time to drive home, so it's assumed he never survives the radioactive fallout.
A book of three parts
This first part of the book is hugely distressing as the family shelter in their tightly sealed kitchen, living on canned goods and watching the world outside turn grey and eerie as they await their sure deaths from radiation sickness.
The second part is more upbeat: it's been 20 years since the war and life has somehow lingered on, albeit in a government bunker in the Bristol-Bath catchment area, where Sarah's dad, Bill, has been living all this time, unaware of his family's fate.
And by the third part, another 30 or so years down the line, the human race is mutating into a new species of simian-like albino beings with supernatural powers — they can communicate by telepathy, for instance, and fly planes using psycho-kinetic energy. It is here that Sarah's grandnephew, Simon, makes contact with some of the creatures, whom he struggles to trust.
The book is thought-provoking and throws up some interesting issues about society, politics and the ways in which human behaviour and biology dictates who survives and who does not. I'm not sure it's scientifically correct though — how, for instance, would albinos be better able to cope with a depleted ozone layer than a normal white-skinned person? Surely the lack of pigment in their skin would subject them to terrible sunburn?
That minor quibble aside, I found the book an engaging, albeit gloomy, read. The characters are a bit two-dimensional, but the dilemmas they find themselves in seem believable and anxiety-inducing. There was never a point where I thought, this is ridiculous.
There are some agendas at play, however. There's a slightly religious undercurrent running throughout the story — which I did my best to ignore — but overall it seems to project a positive message: that if human beings opened their minds, were less prejudiced and less selfish, the world would be a better, more peaceful, place. My 15-year-old self would have loved that.