Saturday, 24 February 2018

Review: 'When the English Fall' by David Williams

Dystopias abound in contemporary literature, science fiction and literary fiction. Whether it's classics like The Handmaid's Tale and its terrifying prediction about where we might be heading, or modern staples like The Hunger Games that excited countless young readers, there is something about a good dystopian novel that sets it apart from other fiction. It is both art and warning, politics and literature, entertaining and educational. So I like to dig into whatever dystopian novel I can find, to see what it has to offer. When the English Fall was as mind-opening and beautiful as I could have wished. Thanks to Algonquin Books and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 11/07/2017
Publisher: Algonquin Books
A riveting and unexpected novel that questions whether a peaceful and non- violent community can survive when civilization falls apart.
Again, all are asleep, but I am not. I need sleep, but though I read and I pray, I feel too awake. My mind paces the floor.
There are shots now and again, bursts here and there, far away, and I cannot sleep. I think of this man in his hunger, shot like a rabbit raiding a garden. For what, Lord? For stealing corn intended for pigs and cattle, like the hungry prodigal helpless in a strange land.
I can hear his voice.
When a catastrophic solar storm brings about the collapse of modern civilization, an Amish community is caught up in the devastating aftermath. With their stocked larders and stores of supplies, the Amish are unaffected at first. But as the English (the Amish name for all non-Amish people) in the cities become increasingly desperate, they begin to invade nearby farms, taking whatever they want and unleashing unthinkable violence on the gentle communities.
Written as the diary of an Amish farmer named Jacob who tries to protect his family and his way of life, When the English Fall examines the idea of peace in the face of deadly chaos. Should members of a nonviolent society defy their beliefs and take up arms to defend themselves? And if they do, can they survive?
David Williams’s debut novel is a thoroughly engrossing look into the closed world of the Amish, as well as a thought-provoking examination of how we live today and what remains if the center cannot hold.
When the English Fall bridges a beautiful gap in dystopian literature. Usually these kinds of novels are set in faraway or fictional countries, or in our distant past where the foundations of the world we know now are hardly recognisable. They are often set in cities, focusing on young people's struggle to become themselves in a society that restricts individuality and emotion. In When the English Fall Williams does something completely different, making his novel one of the most enlightening and eye-opening I have read in the last few months. Some may dispute me calling it a dystopian novel but I feel like it fits, because When the English Fall shows us the downfall and chaos of a society that is both like ours and isn't, a world in which something has gone horrible wrong, a world in which our worst characteristics come to the forefront. Williams protagonists are an Amish family, mostly cut off from the modern day world aside from selective communications. I realized early on in When the English Fall that I had never really considered an apocalypse from their perspective. I also had the even more frightening realization that I would be literally lost if a solar storm like this hit and I'd have to rely on my knowledge of nature and farming. Eye-opening and horrifying indeed.

When the English Fall is also a philosophical novel. The oppositions between natural and manufactured, pacifist and aggressive, independent/alone and co-dependent/supported are all addressed in their own way by Williams. He does so mostly without preaching or becoming judgemental. There is clearly a sense in which he loves the way in which Jacob's family lives, yet he and the reader also senses just how far removed from the "modern world" they are. My favourite member of the family was the young daughter Sadie, who has strange insights into what is to come and what has to happen, while never losing that innocence and determination that signifies youth. Utterly confused and yet strangely calm and determined, she forges along down the path she has been set on, never once doubting her own instincts and the love of her family. It was a strangely empowering portrayal to read, and by the end of When the English Fall I was incredibly fond of her. Williams' novel is part of that fascinating 'found literature' trope that always leaves the reader slightly unsatisfied. What happens next? But what did they do then? How does it "end"? The Handmaid's Tale does the same and I think in part that is what gives books like these their strength; the fact that they don't provide you with all the answers, with an easy lesson to learn, but rather with questions you will have to think about for yourself.

David Williams manages to make you care for these characters through their virtue, rather than their suffering. Trust me, I know how saccharine this sounds and I slightly hate myself for putting it that way, but it's true. Jacob and his family are sketched by Williams with a kindness and love that shines in their actions. The way they help each other, support each other, appreciate and trust each other is truly beautiful and is what makes them so dear to the reader. A different aspect of When the English Fall that I really enjoyed was how slowly yet steadily Williams upped the ante. The whole novel is utterly calm and yet there is that consistent edge of danger and uneasiness that makes even the smallest movement suspicious. Perhaps that was one of the strongest messages of the novel, just how quickly those bonds of trust and understanding can fall away and leave everyone to suffer fear and danger alone, but also how strong those bonds can be, and how key to survival.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

I adored When the English Fall and all it did. It made me think and question, gasp and smile. Williams describes a frequently explored situation from a previously unexplored angle, adding something new to a rich genre. I definitely can't wait to read whatever he writes next.

2 comments:

  1. I'm getting some serious deja vu reading this -- I remember a book from my mom's Christian fiction collection with the exact same premise (solar flare has harrowing effect on modern civilization, Amish to the rescue) but I can't remember the title or the author (I thought it might have been Frank Peretti, but it's not). Ugh, this is going to bug me until I can remember it!

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    1. Went on a deep dive and found it: "Solar Flare," by Larry Burkett:

      https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1441342.Solar_Flare

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