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The-road (WinCE) It’s a rare book that you can read shivering on a cold day and feel only the cruel edges on the prose. Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ is such a book.

The Road follows the journey southwards of an unnamed father and son, a decade after a great, unexplained cataclysm (which appears to be a nuclear winter) has destroyed civilization. The father leads the boy, through the desolate landscape, along vacant highways, towards the sea.  They are sustained only by the vague hope of finding warmth, food and more “good guys” like themselves. Carrying only what can be salvaged from the passing remnants of civilisation, they must avoid the savage bands that roam their path.

The characters transform the standard post-apocalyptic survival genre into a captivating horror because of the intimate father-son bond which keeps both alive in this bleak world. Fighting for each other, motivated only by their desperate, life-gripping need to stay for each other, they provide a frightening lens to view survival.

The father’s greatest fear is that his son will be captured by the one of the bands of savages, cannibals and killers. He is haunted by thoughts of his son captured, enslaved, raped, and eventually eaten. So much so, that his instructions to the boy are to kill himself if capture seems imminent.

The father finds his strength, and the affirmation of his (and all) humanity, in the empathy, questions and comments of the son. His desire to protect his son, and find a way for him to survive fuels his desperate flight southwards. The post-apocalyptic landscape they move through is stark and brutal, but they keep each other clinging onto the dignity necessary to make survival meaningful. They don’t kill, they don’t steal from the living, they help if they can and they are not cannibals. They are the ‘good guys’.

This duality is embedded in every terse sentence. The style of writing, one I haven’t encountered before, is exceedingly reductionist. Little attempt is made at exposition: nothing is explained; even less is understood. These are circumstances, and this is a world, where explanation and understanding are useless.

When on the road, sentences are long and smooth, bleak descriptions of a deadened world. Single sentences chop away nights, hours and weeks of travel. This monotony is punctuated by horror: the detailed action-packed depiction of risk and depravities encountered in the grinding struggle for survival.

This brevity matures oddly as the book progresses. Perhaps its the result of becoming more familiar with McCarthy’s style, but as the book passes the middle mark the prose seems more fuller, richer, deeper and more descriptive, even as it maintains its original terseness. That may be the deepest beauty in a book where every non-essential word (and perhaps many that another writer might’ve deemed essential) has been cast to the cutting room floor

The Road is a book that invites contemplation between every turn of the page. The certainty of death, the horrors of life, the small respite of safety, the largesse of easy food and safe travel, the beauty of birds in the trees, the joy of innocence, the difficulties of morality, the overwhelming loss of hope and beauty. It is a startling reminder of how frail, and how valuable, are things we take for granted.

McCarthy is, and this book in particular is, depicted as a writer of biblical parables rather than novels. The comparison is apt: this is a book where the prose is powerful and precise, and every missing answer invites meditation.

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