The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

(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.

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  1. Devina a Lemon flavoured Jellybean

    I’d read this in 10th grade too, and it never occurred me that you in Canada had it too. After reading your review I can surely say I didn’t fully understand what I read of The Chrysalids back in ’09. Firstly, I didn’t realize a nuclear war had happened and that would have explained of the deformations due to the radiation. Second, New Zealand? That escaped me too.
    I really need to read this again. I was never too fond of English lit back then and the books all seemed so boring and almost pointless. I think it wouldn’t be wrong at all to lay some blame on my literature teacher, I mean I know she wasn’t supposed to spoon feed us what we were to understand but she could have clarified some things and I have good reason to believe the woman didn’t understand The Chrysalids herself!
    Great review, Carrie!

    • Carrie Slager

      A good teacher can make English literature an amazing class, but it’s the bad ones (the ones that don’t explain anything ever) that can ruin it. I’ve been lucky enough to have some amazing English teachers, which is compensation enough for the wretched math teachers I had to endure. (Grade 9 will always be remembered as ‘The Year of the Four Math Teachers’.)

      It does sound like you really didn’t get it and I can’t blame you. It took me a couple read-throughs to get most of it. John Wyndham is pretty subtle compared to some science fiction writers. I would highly recommend re-reading it because you’ll get so much more out of it now.

  2. John

    One of my favorite books ever. I can’t remember how old I was when I read it first, probably early teens. I just read it again about a year ago (40 years later). It was just as good as I remembered.

    Upon my re-read, I didn’t think of it as a crusade against religious fundamentalism at all but rather simply a mockery of all religion. That was the way I interpreted it anyway.

    I had my son read an abridged version of the book when he was 8 and he loved the story line. Upon reflection, I wish I hadn’t have done that. It would have been better to wait till he was 11 or 12 to read the original. He’s 9 now so I’ll wait a couple more years and hopefully he’ll have forgotten most of it. He’ll miss some of the subtlety even at 11 or 12 but it’s such a great book, it can be enjoyed at almost any age.

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