by John Wyndham
"When I was quite small I would sometimes dream of a city - which was strange because it began before I even knew what a city was. . . . " (p 5)
The society depicted in the Chrysalids is chilling in the extreme.
The setting is a post-apocalyptic Labrador, several hundreds of years after a disaster known as ‘Tribulation’, which is never explicitly defined, but which is implied to be nuclear in origin. As a result of Tribulation, genetic mutation has become very common, ranging in severity from very bad in the area nearest to the original disaster, known as the Badlands, to relatively low in the area where the main story takes place. Mutation is seen as a blasphemy and is exterminated wherever possible. The young narrator, David, is the son of a particularly fanatical father who, with other elders, is responsible for maintaining order. David begins to realise how dangerous it is to be abnormal or different when his friend Sophie and her parents have to flee the area owing to her having six toes. In private, and with his friends and an uncle, David begins to seriously question the validity of the preaching and doctrine of the regime. The tension builds in this short novel with further discoveries by the narrator that require him to make life-changing decisions.
While The Chrysalids may have its inspiration in the Cold War of the fifties its portrait of a community driven to authoritarian madness by its overwhelming fear of difference - in this case, of genetic mutations in the aftermath of nuclear war - is timely in our own age of cloning and genome exploration.
John Wyndham's prose style is sophisticated, yet readable with a clarity that acts as a foundation for an almost compulsive readability. He was responsible for a series of eerily terrifying tales of destroyed civilisations, created several of the twentieth century's most imaginative monsters and wrote a handful of novels that are rightly regarded as modern classics - this is among his best.
The Chrysalids by John Wyndham. Penguin Books, London. 1958 (1955)