Guaranteed, Riddley Walker is like nothing else you have ever read. Rusell Hoban has created something truly unique, by placing himself, and us as the reader, fully in the place of a reformed society, centuries after the devastation of a nuclear bomb. Unlike most works of post-apocalyptic fiction, or of any fiction that looks to a different era of time, Hoban gives us a story from the perspective of people completely removed from our society. They don’t have our norms: they don’t even use our language. It makes it a difficult read, but a massively rewarding experience, placing you in a completely different world.
What Riddley Walker all about
The titular Riddley Walker is a resident of a tribal community concerned with excavating old machinery in an Iron Age society. As they work hard to tinker with old mechanics, Riddley gets discovers attempts to recreate an old weapon, and is drawn into a vicious game of cat and mouse as he is hunted across the wasteland of Kent.
As the narrator, Riddley’s story takes its cues, and language, from his world, and you have no choice but to submit to his style, and read his masterfully reformed phonetic language. It takes a while to get used to, but when you get the hang of it you can’t help but float into Riddley’s world, thinking like him – ignorant of the truth, but happily ambling along. You learn the language without quite knowing how, and when you tell your neighbours that it was the dogs as got frendy with you you won’t even realise you’re doing it.
The legends, the history, and the tribal habits that unfold all have some basis in something that happened before the disaster, but if Riddley’s people can’t put the pieces together then you can be damned sure you won’t either. The atomic bomb, Saint Eustace and governance relying on Punch and Judy puppets are among the remnants of the past that are thoroughly misinterpreted in the reconstruction of a unique and memorable society.
As you bask in the glory of Hoban’s elaborately developed (but primitive) world, the story could almost be irrelevant. But Riddley’s journey is as compelling and exciting as any -a hectic tale of discovery, as he’s hounded by threatening characters and wild animals, wandering across the wasteland of East Anglia.
Why it’s worth reading
It can sometimes be hard to think of such immersive storytelling as entertainment, hard work as the language is, but it works brilliantly to keep you in the same mindset as Riddley, and gives you the full feeling of post-apocalyptic life, whether you like it or not. For my money, possibly the closest you’ll get to psychologically truly experiencing what it would feel like to live centuries after the bomb, should anyone actually manage to survive. It makes most other post-apocalyptic novel look like pulp-fiction; a truly exceptional work of literature.