I don’t think I’ve read a more hallucinogenic book. I didn’t so much read it as ingest it. Actually I think it may have ingested me. Also I hear Riddley’s voice all the time now.
So, Riddley Walker is a 12 year old boy and the book’s mystic narrator-author. It’s set in the devastated dystopian wasteland of Kent – or simply ‘Kent’ as we call it here – in a post-apocalyptic neo-Iron Age in the far distant future. Futuristic it is not, however. The human race, or at least the Kentish version of it, has had to start over, with wood, animal skins, foraged metal, a shared mythology based on an obscure saint, and that’s about it.
The story is immaterial – Riddley leaves his community, strikes out on his own, goes on a journey. There’s no great plot. He makes his way around east Kent, circling the shattered city of Canterbury which is still a centre of great power despite lying in ruins; makes various friends, human and animal, escapes various foes; ruminates, connects. It’s his record and interior monologue as he trudges round a hostile landscape of dead towns, lethal dogs, mud and thugs. (Plus ca change…) None of this matters really though.
What matters (for me) is the language. The text is largely phonetic, with a child-like, limited vocabulary, and takes a bit of getting used to: browsing Kent facebook groups will ease you in. But Riddley’s mangled language is punning, playful, and full of multi-layered allusions that gradually reveal their meanings. It has a Middle English rhythm and feel, but made anew and then some. The narration conjures theology, philosophy, history, a child’s wisdom and cosmic insight in wondrous semantic pile-ups and that’s where the magic lies. I never normally read aloud, but I made an exception in this case, and it brings the language and meanings to life. Riddley starts as a sullen kid on a work team digging up scrap metal every day but once he breaks free becomes increasingly reflective and visionary, connecting and being connected, and we connect along with him. And it’s mind-bending.
Of the many things I loved about this book, I have to mention the Canterbury factor, as my newly adopted home town. Despite my antipathy to organised religion in general and Christianity in particular, I have a great attachment to Canterbury Cathedral. Riddley often refers to its legendary trees of stone – the fan vaulting atop the great columns of the interior – and to the cathedral as a womb. I loved that. Even before I read this, I had come to think of the cathedral as a giant sheltering tree or forest, with deep deep roots and a welcoming canopy. For me it’s very much alive, from the centuries of pilgrimage and that human imprint of faith and hope and community that create its meaning, the incredible beauty of its architecture aside. The story of St Eustace, which forms the belief system of Riddley Walker’s world, is depicted in a mad C13th mural there. A crucified Christ appeared to Eustace within the antlers of a stag that he was hunting. The first time I visited the cathedral it stopped me in my tracks. Apparently Russell Hoban felt the same; on first seeing it, the idea of this novel came to him*.
I can’t do justice to this stunning, infuriating, beautiful, baffling book. I need to read it at least several more times.
* Hungover and grumpy after coming to do talk at the university, which had precisely 0 attendees, apparently. Perhaps if the event had been a roaring success and he’d breezed straight home on a wave of authorly satisfaction instead of skulking round the cathedral in a foul mood, the book might never have been written.