This week, things are looking decidedly apocalyptic, as I review debut author Kate Sawyer’s The Stranding. This fair and unbiased review was conducted with gratitude for the free electronic copy of the book which I received from the publisher, Hodder & Stoughton.
This review contains an affiliate link to Bookshop.org, which will earn me a commission if used, as well as helping to support independent bookshops.
Ruth is at a loose end. Riddled with nagging doubts about her life choices and eager to bury her head in the sand as news reports become ever more troubling, she decides to reinvent herself and head off to New Zealand. But the disaster that the news has been heralding catches up with her, an apocalyptic event which she survives by pure chance changing her life and world forever.
With one fellow survivor – friendly Kiwi Nik – Ruth sees out the end of the world by sheltering inside the mouth of a dead beached whale. This might sound like it’s straying into magical realism, and although Sawyer isn’t forthcoming with any science as to the technicalities here – we only know what Ruth and Nik know – it’s more grounded and practical feeling than it is whimsical. Likewise, whatever the apocalyptic event itself actually is, we don’t need to know the exact specifics. It’s some sort of nuclear firestorm caused by escalating tensions of some description, but it’s really just a narrative switch which, when thrown, alters Ruth’s life utterly.
The scenes we see of her life before the apocalypse are starkly contrasting with everything we see after the bombs(?) have dropped; so much of her life she takes for granted, as indeed we all do, and that’s made ever more clear as we flit between the two timelines. Her and Nik are scavenging for food across a ravaged and desolate North Island in one chapter, and in another she’s having a jolly family Christmas dinner. You might think that the juxtaposition of Ruth’s pre-apocalyptic life alongside her post-apocalyptic one might be jarring, or that perhaps one might not be as satisfying as the other, but actually the glorious mundanity of her former life frames her new one with a great deal of poignancy. It’s almost as if Sally Rooney decided to write a version of The Road.
Ruth’s world before the apocalypse struck was one of teaching kids and not really being sure if she wanted her own, before being landed with someone else’s. A life with loving parents and a best friend – the instantly loveable Fran – who drives the two of them back home for Christmas. A life with messy, tangled relationships, social obligations and so on. In short, it was fairly run of the mill. But the effort that has been expended in making it all feel utterly believable and real shines through; as soon as characters are introduced, you feel as if you know them, and through knowing them, as if you know more of Ruth too. The decisions that she makes along the way to making the most significant one, to go to New Zealand, are every bit as compelling to read about as the life and death ones she’s faced with at the end of the world.
To say much about how things unfold after Ruth and Nik emerge from the mouth of their unwitting saviour would be to spoil some of the more charming and emotional elements of the book; despite the sadness that they both clearly feel at the world that has been lost, they set about creating a new one for themselves, with the bones of the whale which sheltered them as its foundation. There are moments of tension here, of an entirely different kind to the ones which crop up in the awkward moments of Ruth’s previous life, as they struggle to survive their new reality. Sawyer uses cliffhangers to great effect here, cutting away from dramatic, life or death moments in the present to the everyday past, but it never feels like we’re being cheated by being dragged back, not when it’s all so vividly realised and engaging.
The Stranding is nothing less than a triumph – a beautiful story of love, family and friendship, told with real skill and empathy. This is the sort of book I would have no trouble recommending to practically anyone.
The Stranding is published by Coronet (an imprint of Hodder & Stoughton) on the 24th of June. You can order your own copy through this affiliate link.