I have quite a taste for post-apocalyptical fantasies myself (such as Cormac McCarthy’s chilling ‘The Road’, reviewed here earlier on GP), so I picked up ‘Everyone Can Be A Hero’ with some eagerness. It is a novel for teenagers set in a Britain devastated by a nuclear accident, where the remaining population is forced to return to the skills of the past in order to survive – quite a contrast to books like Let the Snog Fest Begin! or the ubiquitous Twilight series which throng the 12+ shelves in Waterstones and other bookshops.
The cover of ‘Everyone Can Be a Hero‘ is promising. It’s made of cardboard, laced with rough string, and my worries that this would mean it would be hard to open the book properly were not fulfilled. The paper is recycled. All of which sets the scene well for a new reality in which resources are scarce. Life is indeed different in this 2040 world. Roads have returned to wilderness. Children skate to school. Families all have allotments and grow their own food. There are some great ideas in here: I particularly liked the annual M1 sailboarder race.
The leading character in the book is Kirk, a teenage boy living with his family in a tower block in London. He is introduced as a keen gardener. He is looking after a flat for a friend, and it has been taken over by luxuriant, thriving edible plants, to the amazement of Maria, a schoolmate who comes to visit. The two bond when they realise that they are both concerned about the trains which have started to travel at night. They believe the trains are carrying nuclear waste, and they decide they need to find out the truth. With a group of friends they bicycle down to Kent armed with cameras and memory sticks, determined to track the destination of the locomotives and their sinister cargo.
There is a good story struggling to get out of this book. However, at the moment, it is bogged down with confused narrative, poor character definition and a wobbly grasp of the new reality that the author has created. So, the nuclear accident that has paralysed Britain has wiped out cars (oil?), but not computers, the internet or television. No-one appears to be suffering from the after effects of radiation, although the population is much smaller. The ocean levels have risen, flooding swathes of London and the south-east but this causes few problems, except that railway lines vanish underwater. Life does not appear much changed, except that people grow their food and are much, much nicer. Crime, somehow, has been eliminated.
It would be possible to overlook these issues if the narrative was exciting. This story follows the well-trodden, classic structure of a quest. A small band of travellers cross hostile terrain and pass through a series of menacing obstacles to attain their prize, which they must then bring back in order to triumph. However, in ‘Everyone Can Be a Hero’, there are few obstacles to surmount. There is no conflict. So many convenient ‘friends’ emerge to help the group on their travels, that the reader thinks the underground organisation that Kirk and his mates belong to is far more well-organised than the government. Although there are a number of shadowy figures that appear to be following the group, they never materialise into a real threat. The tension is not ratcheted up so the suspense vanishes.
The overwhelming impression that this book leaves is that the author is passionately against nuclear energy. The world that JR Birch has created is wish-fulfilment – everyone has allotments, they are all kinder, they live simpler lives, and the government is characterised only as Bad. Whilst it is a pleasure to get away from the current vampire obsession in teenage fiction, and there is no doubt that teenagers are greatly interested in environmental issues and have the capacity to become really engaged in debates about their future and the future of the planet, they do not need to be preached at. Teenagers don’t like stories that are worthy, and they don’t like to be told what to think. Unfortunately this book falls into those traps, and I cannot therefore believe it would appeal to its target audience.
‘EVERYONE CAN BE A HERO’ By June Rosemary Birch, Published by Insider Outsider Publications, Telfs, Hendon Wood Lane, London
Our reviewer Clare Reddaway worked for the BBC and Granada Television before turning to writing short stories and scripts for adults and children. Her work has been has been broadcast on local radio stations and published in magazines, on the web and in anthologies. Her scripts have been produced in the theatre and as audio drama. She can been seen performing throughout the south-west with live fiction group Heads and Tales.
She has recently recorded an audio story-walk for them, available at www.headsandtales.org.uk – a new way of experiencing both fiction and the environment, at the same time. She writes occasional articles for the Bath and Bristol Magazines and is a regular book reviewer for a number of publications both in print and online. Clare lives in Bath with her daughter.
photo credit: Midnight Digital via flickr