I wanted to contribute to the BBC, but due to being in Sydney tonight I can't make it. So, what follows is more a stream of consciousness rant rather than a structured response to the carefully crafted questions.
Why would anyone want to read this book? This was my initial thought as I worked through the first few pages. A tome on a nuclear winter sure sounds fun. But, incrementally, as I pushed my cart in front of me, thoughts and feelings emerged which I found intriguing. There was an initial urge for me to continually ask questions, 'so what's happened here?', 'a catstrophe of some sort....nuclear war? erupting volcanoes? collision with asteroids?' I looked for clues. I wanted to know where they were and what year it was. I wanted information beyond what the author was prepared to divulge. But slowly I saw that this was all very intentional, as a central theme of 'survivalism / minimalism' emerged. Actually, I don't know if one could describe it as a 'central' theme, as that theme was not revealed until the very end of the book. But minimalism, for sure. It's in the staccato-like dialogue, the brevity of the paragraphs, the economical use of apostrophes. 'Get used to this' the author is saying, 'because there isn't much left of what you know as familiar'. Everything we take for granted is gone and in its place this particular form of hell. I don't want to dwell on the obvious existentialist theme, so acutely portrayed in Ely. Which, of course, wasn't his real name. So to answer the question 'when you have nothing what do you have?' returned to me constantly. Strip away everything in our lives which are not fundamental to our survival and classify them as 'luxuries'. The fundamentals for survival may include shelter, warmth, food, safety from harm. What else? Love? Those fundamentals consume the man's every thought and action. But it doesn't answer the question of why? Is it hope? Hope that by going south to avoid the perpetual winter there may be warmth? By making it to the sea there may be food and shelter and safety from the marauding slavers? With a perpetual winter and no sunshine there was also no colour. No sunset and sunrise. These also were stripped from their lives.
It seemed that when the catastrophe occurred, people made the choice to 'self destruct' (as the child's mother apparently chose to do), or to move on. The man, however, had his gun which at the start had 2 bullets: one for him and one for the boy in case they were about to be captured by the slavers. He wasted one bullet so had to fashion fakes out of wood to give any new potential threat the impression he had a full revolver, and so keep that last bullet. Hope has its boundaries.
It was interesting to note that he used a supermarket shopping trolley as the means to carry their possessions. I read recently that if one were to take out of the 'average' shopper's trolley of 100 items, all those items not necessary for our very survival (water, unprocessed foods, clothes for warmth) then there would be just 4 items remaining. 96% of what we purchase can be classed as 'luxuries'. Of course in the man's trolley the ratio was reversed. Sweet irony. Just as the physical image of minimalism / survivalism was so starkly portrayed, so too were emotional minimalism and spiritual minimalism. The man had so few emotions he appeared a mega-stoic. In the end he did express rage, and in between he showed compassion and love for the boy, but not for others. The boy on the other hand seemed to have a magnified spiritual dimension. His concern for the little boy, compassion for Ely, fraughtful reaction to how the man made the thief strip naked. It was difficult to dispel the Christ allusion, that in this child resided the hope of humanity. The fire within him was so bright. Indeed, probably the most poignant line in the book was when the boy said to the man, as tears ran down his cheeks, that he has to worry about everything. On his tiny shoulders had been laid such a weight.
The ending was difficult. The man dies. The boy is 'rescued'. Salvation is at hand? Hope continues and never dies? Most unsatisfactory, but not so that the rest of the novel is devalued, rather my own sense of hope was challenged. We are all burdened with our luxuries.
So, to whomever recommended the book I say 'thanks'. I will resist seeing the film because my own images still sit in sharp relief, not yet ready for replacement by others. With volcanoes blowing their top in Iceland, and Krakatoa about to erupt just to our north, and the San Andreas fault showing signs of a major shift, I might just start collecting tins of food. And the odd shopping trolley.