(Cover picture courtesy of Redditor’s Choice.)
In The Chrysalids John Wyndham takes the reader into the anguished heart of a community where the chances of breeding true are less than 50 per cent and where deviations are rooted out and destroyed as offences and abominations. The narrator of The Chrysalids is David, who can communicate with a small group of other young people by means of ‘thought shapes’. This deviation from a cruelly rigid norm goes unnoticed at first. But sooner or later the secret is bound to be discovered, and the results are violent, horrific…and believable.
The Chrysalids is one of those few high school novel study favourites that actually doesn’t talk down to students. Heaven forbid they read an age appropriate novel that has practical messages about life in it! Well, the reading level is far below what I would consider high school, but it’s definitely a case of content making this a high school book. Incest (between half-cousins), sexuality, torture and death are some of the things students will encounter in The Chrysalids. By grade ten, which is when it is usually taught here in Saskatchewan, I would hope that fifteen and sixteen-year-olds are mature enough to handle such things.
The Chrysalids is a very short novel that covers a fairly large time period and there were times I was confused as to what the heck was going on. However, John Wyndham generally managed to keep the plot on track while developing his characters decently well. David won’t win any prizes for greatest male lead ever, but he’s not a bad character and you really do feel for him and his predicament in Waknuk as a telepath in a society that banishes ‘deviations’ to the Fringes.
My favourite part of The Chrysalids is how John Wyndham constructed the Waknuk society. It’s heavily implied that many centuries ago a nuclear war wiped out the ‘Old People’ (us) and the people of Waknuk are still dealing with the nuclear fallout. How do they deal with it? By turning to a warped version of Christianity and a book called Repentances written during the time of Tribulation (the nuclear war) that reflects the fear of the new radiation-induced deformities. While I won’t get too much into religion, let’s just say that the version of Christianity preached by the community leaders is not the version that I saw when I read the Bible and leave it at that.
The Chrysalids can be enjoyed on many different levels. Some could see it as a crusade against religious fundamentalism and the role of fear in keeping citizens obedient. It could be seen as social commentary on the hypocrisy of people’s fear of anything “Other”, especially when the New Zealand woman calls David’s people ‘primitive’ for not embracing telepathy. It can even been seen as a story of forbidden love between two half-cousins, if you’re so inclined. I’m not, but it can still be interpreted that way.
I give this book 4/5 stars.