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Review: The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

the chrysalids by john wyndham Review: The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

Some two years ago, I stood in a Japanese supermarket admiring the perfectly identical produce: large, robust apples, blemish-free bananas curved to a precise degree, melons rich and ruddy and designed to fit perfectly within their packaging. One can only imagine the exacting science that goes into producing such fruit, can only imagine how much defective or inadequate produce is thrown away or recycled into some other fruit-based food'pastes and preserves, perhaps. It's not just Japan that harbours this fascination with exemplary fruit, however: did you know that there are very strict rules worldwide governing what makes a banana and what doesn't? That in Australia we typically only have access to a few varieties of apples'the types that freeze well and transport easily without bruising? You might be surprised to find that there are some few hundred varieties of apples in the world, but most of us will never so much as set eyes on them because they do not meet the particular commercial standards of our major supermarkets. It's strange, though, the arbitrariness of what makes a'proper apple. Stranger still, perhaps, the wariness with which people treat the small and slightly skew-whiff produce that tends to be the result of a backyard vegetable patch. My grandmother is renowned for her delicious peppers, but to look at them they're nothing special: spiralling, stunted, coloured differently from the uniform peppers found in the supermarket. But perhaps this indeed is what makes them special.

But while the appearance of fruit may seem something rather trivial over which to ruminate, it's a very real issue to those living in the small town of Waknuk. Hundreds of years after what we can only take to be a nuclear holocaust, the people of Waknuk are haunted by the spectre of deformity, to the point that it has become deeply infused in their religious beliefs as a symbol of corruption. They fear deeply the potential occurrence of aberrant and distorted foodcrops, which to them not only signifies a potential return to the ruinous world from which they have sought to separate themselves, but also of how these deformities paint the farmer responsible for them: morally inadequate, psychically reprehensible, and perhaps somehow harbouring these very same corruptions within themselves. For it's not only the uniformity of foodstuffs with which the people of Waknuk are concerned, but of all living things. Humans, they exhort, are created in the image of God, and those who do not meet cripplingly exacting standards are clearly not the work of God, but rather something demonic and foul. The smallest deviation from these piously followed guidelines as to the form' something should take can have devastating consequences: whole fields may be put to the torch, animals put down, and humans exiled to the 'badlands'. Waknuk is thus a place characterised by paranoia and fear, with its inhabitants habituated to inform on their neighbours and loved ones, an act that detracts from the informer's likelihood of being cast as a deviant themselves.

Joseph Strorm, father of protagonist David, is a cruel embodiment of this informer mentality, and the puritanical fervour with which he denounces the crops or livestock of others and keeps a running assessment of the physical exactitude of those around him is quite terrifying. When young David, attempting to put a plaster on his injured arm, innocently suggests that having a third arm would make it far easier to do so, Joseph reacts furiously, accusing his son of having heretical designs. His paranoia is further highlighted in the recounting of an incident in which he condemns a tailless cat that turns out not to be an embodiment of deviation, but rather a member of a well-regarded breed with an extensive lineage (a Manx, of course). But as the narrative progresses, we see hints that may explain Joseph's obsession with not only pointing out the flaws of others, but in his own self-flagellation: it is almost a source of pride to Joseph when he is able to condemn his own fields and livestock for being unworthy in his eyes, and therefore the eyes of God. These acts may well be Joseph's method of seeking penance for the corruption he feels may lurk within himself and within his family: his brother was years ago exiled as a severe deviation, and his sister-in-law has had to give up her malformed children. Joseph's fears for his own children are evident in his agitation over his newborn daughter and his enormously palpable relief when she is deemed to exhibit no visible physical defects.

However, Joseph's concerns for his children are not unfounded, for while it is true that they are both well formed, they are abnormal in a way that is not so easily identified. David, like a small group of others, including his cousin Rosaline, is able to communicate via thought, a curious development that has as yet remain unidentified among the village, but if uncovered would no doubt result in their being chased out or killed. The group works to preserve a front of normalcy, but is painfully aware of their subversive trait and its potentially disastrous consequences: one member of the group, Anne, defects, seeks out married life and refusing to make use of her abilities so that she might lead a normal life. Despite the group's best efforts, however, things quickly become complicated when it turns out that David's younger sister Petra is also a telepath, but one with only infantile control over her ability. A series of inexplicable events causes the group to come increasingly under the internal and puritanical gaze of the townsfolk, and at the sotto voce advice of David's dissenting uncle, they find themselves fleeing into the uncharted and deviant-filled badlands. The group's eventual encounter with the deviations is one of strange contrasts: David is simultaneously terrified by their brutal physicality and surprised by the fact that they are so much more human that he might have expected.

It's during this encounter, however, that Petra, whose telepathetic skills, despite being uncontrolled, are far stronger than the others', hears a call that may well be their salvation: a voice speaks to her of a futuristic world in which telepathy, a deviation, is the norm, and where the insularity and back-to-the-land agrarianism typifying their own lived reality has given way under pressing efforts towards progression, technology. It is a world where deviations are instead the ruling class, where the shut-off ways of unlinked minds, with their different languages and different beliefs, have fallen before a normativity that embraces a singularity of thought and perception. This element, though extending eventually into something that becomes a rather awkward deus ex machina that truly underscores the dystopian horror of the book: the fact that one set of norms and prejudices has been simply swapped for another. Both groups have their own eugenic practices, their own narrow ideas of perfection and of deviation; both groups denounce the primitivism, the bestial nature, of the other. Its a truly horrific thought that its not a particular group or class that David and his friends have been trying to escape, but rather something that appears to be something that crosses all aspects of humanity, regardless of their social, economic, or technological development. Its the strength obtained through segregation, the unity that comes through the destruction of the other, the comfort that can be gained through adherence to a narrow set of arbitrary rules that govern human behaviour to such a degree as to remove the need for empathy or conscience. Wyndham underscores this point in a battle scene during which two major characters from either camp are killed, simultaneously equating the two groups, despite their argument that they have differing beliefs and ways of life, and highlighting their shared fallibility.

While The Chrysalids has not received the same degree of acclaim as Wyndhams famous The Day of the Triffids, it is a subtler and more disturbing book. Wyndhams straight-forward, simple prose style is deceptive, as there is a vast undercurrent of themes carrying this book to its conclusion. Its a stunning dissection of the hypocrisy and arrogance of humanity, and of our reliance on bigotry and insularity as a way to unite us against a perceived external threat. The assertion that one dystopian scenario can only ever be swapped with another equally problematic scenario heavy with all the same problems and issues unless we somehow overcome our very humanity is utterly chilling. Moreover, the vanishingly narrow definition of perfection, as well as the arbitrariness with which it is defined, is a horrifying conception given the future that is just around the corner. It makes one very tempted to eat a wind-whipped, misshapen apple just because one still can.

Rating: star Review: The Chrysalids by John Wyndhamstar Review: The Chrysalids by John Wyndhamstar Review: The Chrysalids by John Wyndhamstar Review: The Chrysalids by John Wyndhamhalfstar Review: The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

Purchase The Chrysalids.

See also our list of dystopian young adult fiction.

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  1. I know this is a very, very superficial thing to say, but WOAH, those covers are gorgeous! I read The Chrysalids when I was in Year Ten (the age at which I began to actually develop some taste and common sense) along with Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes, all bound together in a giant, battered ugly blue hardcover from my local library.

    Most of the plot details of The Chrysalids have disappeared from my mind now, but I remember being vaguely awed by the subtlety; the things Wyndham left out (I was fifteen or so at the time, and used to reading books that described each characters physical appearance in minute detail)

  2. Stephanie /

    Arent they beautiful? My copies of The Day of the Triffids and The Chrysalids are both secondhand copies of those 70s orange penguin paperbacks. Theyre yellowed and grotty and awful, which I think is probably why it took me so long to ever get around to reading Wyndham in the first place. I read Triffids a few years ago now, and was really impressed by the way that Wyndham managed to examine such complex themes through such an outwardly simple narrative. Everything is so spare and neat that its surprising that theres so much depth. And I love his slightly canted, almost whimsical take on things.

  3. This book sounds really good. Its been recommended to me a few times, so I really must look it up! Thanks.

  4. Stephanie /

    Thanks for stopping by, Amy. It is a wonderful read. Very moving and complex, but its also very fast-paced and engaging. Definitely a read in a single sitting type of book!

  5. Spectacular book. Im so surprised it doesnt come up in discussion of all this Dystopomania thats going on in YA lit right now.

    • Stephanie /

      Agreed, Gabrielle! I reference it quite regularly, but I suspect that many people reading in YA dystopia havent read much of the classic stuff thats so heavily influenced the dystopian and postapocalyptic genres.

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