A Wrinkle in the Skin by John Christopher
8 February 2019
I’ve just finished reading A Wrinkle in the Skin by John Christopher. It’s a curious book about a series of earthquakes that fundamentally change the world and wipe out most of humankind. It doesn’t sound particularly cheerful, does it, but what drew me to it was that much of the story is set on Guernsey.
Here’s an excerpt:
So they came up the hill to the jumble of bricks that, like a high water mark, outlined the Fort Road. This was the point which offered one of the finest views in the island – the Fort George headland, green and wooded, on one’s right, ahead the expanse of sea, broken by the other islands, Herm and Jethou and the more distant Sark and, on good days, Alderney, its cliffs bright in the sunshine. And the town below, the huddled terraces dropping, layer on layer, towards the waterfront and the harbour.
He saw the islands first. They stood where they had always stood, but islands no longer; between and round them lay the rock and sand and banks of weed of the sea bed. In the middle of the Russell a cargo boat sat, broken-backed, on an upthrust shoal. Nearer, Castle Cornet was broken, leaving a few bits of wall. It looked, on its rocky eminence, like a shattered tooth. Nearer still…
He had expected total ruin, even a desert of smashed brick and stone, all salient features destroyed. But the reality had power to amaze and shock him. The town has gone completely. Where there had been houses and shops one saw raw earth and rock, the contours, exposed again, of the time before history. All that remained was a vague outline of front and harbour; at one point the twisted stub of one of the big cranes stood out. As he looked more closely, he saw that the bed of the Russell, as far as the eye could see, was speckled with debris. What he had seen before on the island had been ruin: this was obliteration.
Billy stood beside him. He said, in a quiet voice: ‘What did it?’
‘Like a wall,’ Matthew said, almost to himself. ‘A wall of hammers, battering rams, bulldozers, beating and scouring. My God! And to think I thought there might have been a fire there.’
They were silent, looking down. It was possible to trace the course of the tidal wave by the great smear of erasure, running along the sides of the hills on which the town had been built, to the north spilling inland. There would be nothing left of St Sampson, either, and very little of anything on the far north of the island.
The sea’s disappearance is key to the plot, as it allows Matthew and Billy – a child who tags along – to walk first to Alderney and then right across to the mainland, where Matthew is determined to search for his daughter. Along the way, they encounter a stranded tanker, and when they reach the mainland they find equal devastation. Worse, mob mentality has set in. The few civilised civilians who have survived the disaster are being terrorised by marauding gangs, intent on stealing food and supplies.
It was first published in 1965, and my edition is a second-hand copy from the late 1970s, and although the story holds up well, some of the characters’ attitudes may leave you feeling somewhat uncomfortable when you’re used to reading more modern fiction. The remaining women on Guernsey are ‘owned’ by the self-appointed leader, Miller, who beats them and discards them when something better comes along. It takes a long time for us to encounter a truly strong female character. Up until that point, the only female that showed any potential quickly succumbed to Miller’s dubious charms and, despite knowing how he treated the woman he was with when they first met, still moves into his tent on very little pretext after just a few pages.
Elsewhere, the gender roles are reinforced.
[Matthew] tried to keep the children cheerful by talking to them and getting them to play games like ‘I Spy’, but, Jane apart, he had never been particularly good with the young. It was a woman’s job, really, but three of them were plainly worse than the children…
…The tent poles went askew and one of them broke but it happened during the day and the men were able to put things right without much difficulty…
Many of the more mundane hardships of post-apocalyptic life are absent. How do the characters shave, what’s it like not being able to clean your teeth for months on end, why aren’t they more traumatised by the death of almost everyone they love?
Fortunately, the premise underpinning the story is strong enough to overlook such omissions. The idea of walking from the Channel Islands to the mainland is far from appealing, but John Christopher’s description of the secret landscape that a disaster on this scale would reveal at least makes it intriguing.
The mist did clear, but not until the middle of the day. Before that they walked between peaks of pink granite which might, for all one could see of the upper reaches, have been Himalayan foothills. The sea had cut the rock into strange shapes; at one time they traversed a twisting gorge, floored with bright sand, where their voices echoed back on them…
That gorge, it turned out, was the Casquettes.