“How do you carry on living after the world as you know it has been destroyed?”
First published in 1975, Z for Zachariah is a novel that encapsulates the fear of imminent apocalypse that gripped many people at the height of the Cold War. The book starts in a sheltered valley in America where Ann Burden lives, almost sixteen and all alone. Outside the valley, the world is utterly dead, no people, no plants, no animals, not since the war which started just over a year ago and ended a week later. Ann’s mother and father and brothers along with their only neighbours went out into the world to find out what was happening and never came back. As far as Ann knows, she is the last person left alive in the world, trapped in her valley which has somehow escaped the destruction.
And then one day a stranger walks into the valley. He’s encased in an orange suit and pulling a cart covered in the same material. Ann is torn. Here is another human being when she thought there were none. But who is he? And will he help her or harm her?
Z for Zachariah is an intense reading experience. It’s written as Ann’s journal and O’Brien uses this to create a pendulum of tension and release. When Ann sits down to write, it is because she’s finally able to after some incident, so the reader is aware that for now she is safe, but that something has happened to make her need to state this. I love it for the hairy moments that have you turning the pages while your cup of tea goes cold, but I also love the slower parts, the detailed explanations of how Ann lives her life, the everyday tasks she must accomplish, her hopes and plans for the future. It’s not without flaws: there are a couple of plot points that jar, but, for me, it’s the type of book to be swallowed whole and not worry too much about the flaws.
Why do I think Z for Zachariah is a book people should still be reading? It’s an interesting take on future dystopia. There are no battles, no creepy government agencies, no zombies or aliens, no entirely new societies. It’s about a girl trying to carry on living after the world as she knows it has been destroyed and who does it by trying to do the things which are normal for her: cooking, growing food, reading, visiting the church, trying to work out what day it is so she can celebrate her sixteenth birthday. It’s about a new possibility arriving in her life and her working out how this will affect her and what she needs to do about it. It’s rare for a novel to feature only two characters, but here the intense focus is beautifully played out as Ann tries to work out what sort of life she wished to lead and scrutinises the man, Loomis, to see how he can fit into this life.
More to Read!
For another interesting take on dystopia written during the Cold War, try John Wyndham’s 1955 novel The Chrysalids.
Claire Watts writes and edits fiction and non-fiction for children and young adults.
Her latest YA novel is How Do You Say GOOSEBERRY in French?
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