First published in 1955, this post-apocalyptic novel by John Wyndham whilst being very much a creature of its time, remains pertinent today. Although he does not state it in words, it is clear from his text that the society which both fears, and in a sense reveres, ‘the Tribulation’, is one that has been rebuilt from the wreckage of a portion of humanity that has lived through a globally devastating nuclear war. Wyndham shows the reader a society that has regressed technologically, sociologically, and intellectually to the level of that encountered in the first half of the seventeenth century, in which scriptural literalism and dogma dictate every facet of community life. It thus taps into the fears of its time: nuclear confrontation between the superpowers; the perverse pursuit of genetic purity by recently defeated Nazism; humanity’s tendency to cleave to dogma, whether in the form of religious obscurantism – as in this novel – or political ideology.
The novel’s protagonist – David Strorm – is a child when the story opens, and it is through his eyes, and his encounter with Sophie Wender, that the reader comes to understand the depths of revulsion which the people of Labrador hold for ‘deviations’ from ‘the true image’, i.e. for any form of mutation in the external human form. However, what David and a small group of externally normal individuals manage to conceal from this tightly controlled and policed community is their own mutation: telepathy. At least for a time. Their fate, should they be discovered, could be expected to be no better than forced sterilisation and banishment to the Fringes, a lawless zone in which mutation has run riot, forming a transitional area between that deemed habitable and the blackened glassy wastes created by the nuclear conflagration.
Wyndham’s novel is an engaging coming-of-age tale in which the human impulse to seek out and destroy that which it finds different to itself, and thus unpalatable, is depicted in bleak detail. Although very different in its setting to The Midwich Cuckoos, which unfolds in rural postwar England, both books focus upon a group of characters possessed of telepathic abilities, which was evidently a theme that appealed to Wyndham. In The Chrysalids, however, it is the group of telepaths who find themselves the persecuted rather than the persecutors, until . . .
Overall, I found this to be a rewarding read, although I would probably state a preference for The Midwich Cuckoos owing to its occasional humour, which is very much absent from this volume. Its ending also seemed to arrive with an unexpected abruptness.