I’ve mentioned a few times that I do almost all of my reading on my Kindle now days, and there is definitely no shortage of post-apocalyptic books at my disposal in that format. But every so often, I come across a book that I really want to read that’s just not available in any kind of electronic format; What Niall Saw by Brian Cullen was one such book.
I first heard about What Niall Saw from my buddy Fear, of the Cosy Catastrophe blog. He said it was bleak, maybe even on par with The Road or Threads, and that I had to read it. So I found an original paperback on Ebay, and even though it was in the UK and the shipping cost more than the book itself, I grabbed it.
Published in 1985, What Niall Saw is the story of a family living in Ireland, in the days following a nuclear strike on Great Britain. But it’s not your standard cold war-era WWIII story; because Niall is a seven year-old boy, and what he saw is written as if we’re reading his diary, complete with spelling and grammar mistakes, and more importantly, a seven year-old’s perspective.
Late one night, Niall and his four year-old sister are awakened by the shaking of their beds, and the sky going “an orange lumpy colour”. His parents quickly grab a few meager supplies and seal the entire family, including the dog, in the cupboard beneath the stairs. With little outside news, and knowing that fallout is a very real danger, they remain in that closet until forced out by thirst and hunger, with Niall chronicling all that they’re going through.
Given that it’s the whole point of the book, I found it interesting that the fact that the narrator was a child was what I considered to be its biggest drawback, for two reasons.
The story is definitely bleak, I won’t argue that. They’re trapped in a confined space for weeks; it’s cold and dark. They’ve got the runs, and bedsores, and they know that it’s worse outside because they can hear the sounds of violence in their neighborhood. I imagine that “horrible” would not be a strong enough word to describe their experience.
But the problem is that you do have to imagine it. Because the story is written by a young boy who doesn’t fully realize what’s happening, or what could happen, you don’t get the full impact of how bad their situation is.
If it was a movie where we could see their misery, or written from the parents’ perspective where we would be able to know their agony at seeing their children suffer, it would be much more hard-hitting. But Niall describes what’s happening as facts, and he’s not able to understand that no matter how bad things are, they’re likely to get worse.
My second problem with the childish narration is actually another literary device that the author utilized on purpose. As the book progresses, Niall’s health begins to fail, and so does his ability to keep a journal. While the writing in the early parts of the book is mostly understandable, by the end it was so disjointed that I had a hard time telling what was going on.
Again, the thought of a child so ill from radiation sickness that he can’t write is heart-breaking, but if you have to guess at what’s happening, it doesn’t convey the same impact.
So overall, I’m glad I read it, but mostly just because it satisfied my curiousity; if I would have left it sitting on my shelf, I would have always wondered about it. I won’t say I actively disliked it, but it definitely didn’t live up to my hopes and expectations.
So ironically, I guess you can say it’s a good thing I read it, if only because now I know that it wasn’t really worth reading in the first place, at least for me.