Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban

“Riddley Walker” is one of the most unique books I have ever read, and is also probably the most difficult book I will ever come across. The novel is set in a very desolate future, about two thousand years after a nuclear holocaust. In this future, humanity has deteriorated back to a simple hunter/gatherer lifestyle, and technology no longer exists. Civilisation has reverted back to a second Iron Age where iron is salvaged from the broken machines of the old world. Religion has also converted into the worship of ‘Eusa’, which is a mistaken jumble between the story of St Eustace, and half forgotten facts from the nuclear war. (More on Eusa will be discussed later).

What really makes this novel stand out from other dystopian fantasies is the language used, and it is arguably the most important aspect of the book. It is clear that at some point after the nuclear war, language suffered a near complete breakdown. What is left is ‘Riddleyspeak’ - a strange mix between a phonetic version of English and a new, made up slang. Although this makes the book quite hard to read at first, it makes it easier to really throw yourself into Riddley’s mind and his world. It becomes easier to read after the first few chapters, after you become used to the language and rhythm, and it’s worth the effort. But I won’t lie – I found it a tricky book to read! I had to read it out loud several times in order to hear what the word sounded like, rather than just seeing it on the page. But the fun part is that this is intentional, as Russell Hoban wants the reader to feel as confused as Riddley does. The reader is forced to slow down and really concentrate on understanding what is being said, just as Riddley is trying to understand his “connexions”.

The setting of Riddley Walker is quite simple, by fantasy standards. It’s set in “Inland” (England), in the county of Kent. We can see it is Kent from the map Ridley has drawn at the beginning of the book. We can recognise some of the landmarks, such as “Cambry” (Canterbury), “Fork Stoan” (Folkestone), and “Do It Over” (Dover). The plot itself is also fairly simple; the story begins on Riddley’s twelfth birthday, which he describes as the day he becomes a man. This immediately gives us an insight into Riddley’s society, as since children become adults by age twelve then they probably don’t have a very long life expectancy. When Riddley’s father is killed in an accident during a salvaging shift, Ridley takes his place as the “connexions man”. It becomes Riddley’s job to interpret and find connections between events, and to understand the world around him. It also becomes the reader’s job to try to find connections between events in the book, of which there are several! While making his “connexions” Ridley comes across an item from the old world which he believes could return the “clevverness” and help rebuild the bombs. Once he finds this, he has to go on the run from the officials who try to take it from him.

What complicates the plot are the stories Riddley tells for the reader. These stories are half forgotten events before and during the war, which have been mistakenly blended with myths, legends and Bible stories. The most important of Ridley’s stories is the “Eusa Story”, which is the only information they have left about how the war began. Unfortunately for them, the story has somehow combined with the story of St Eustace (which involves Eustace’s wife being kidnapped by pirates, and his sons being taken by a wolf and a lion). In the tale, Eusa pulls “Addom” the “Littl Man” into two halves to make the “1 big 1”. The reader has to decode the story to get an idea of what really happened. The name ‘Eusa’ is meant to represent St Eustace (and possibly the USA), while ‘Addom’ was an atom. Personally, I believe the ‘Littl Man’ in the story can be linked with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as the bombs used were called ‘little boy’ and ‘fat man’, but I could be wrong!

I found Riddley Walker to be quite a sad story, in its own way, because it becomes increasingly clear that the world has degenerated to the point where too much knowledge has been lost for it to ever return to what it once was. This is especially obvious when Ridley tells the Eusa story, and when he finds an old puppet from a Punch and Judy show and truly believes it can help bring back technology. Although the book was a bit harder to read than I would have liked, it deserves a 7/10 purely for the creativity put into the language, and because the story has some of the most realistic and bleak predictions for a post nuclear future that I have ever come across. My major issue was that I found Riddley to be a bit too passive at times, such as the lack of emotion when his father died, but as I said before death is probably just part of everyday life in his world. This was only my first reading, and I’m sure that when I pick it up again I’ll find lots that I missed the first time round. But it would have been nice to have a bit more explanation from the author, as the glossary at the back didn’t manage to answer all my questions. Overall, Riddley Walker makes a very interesting read, and definitely a memorable one!

7/10 Perfect for those who want to completely immerse themselves in a post-nuclear civilisation.

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