Guaranteed reading with intelligence

Guaranteed reading with intelligence
Guaranteed reading with intelligence

Friday, 13 September 2013

’48 by James Herbert – Mini Book Review

By Raymond Mathiesen

5 out of 5 stars

Black Shirts and Anarchy

What if, in 1948 in the final phase of World War 2, a biological weapon was released?  After all such `wonder weapons' were really in development buy both Britain and Germany.  And what if, as a result, virtually all of the population of Britain were killed in one catastrophic day?  Only a few, the partially immune, survive for a while and even fewer, the naturally immune, live on untouched (at least by disease).  What would life then be like in 1948?  Thus the novel's title.

As you can see, this is an alternate history, and so technically is science fiction. James Herbert usually writes horror, but this effort is definitely not second rate as a result.  Herbert is "Britain's No.1 best-selling writer of chiller fiction, a position he has held since the publication of his first novel" ('48, p.1).   Herbert's novels "have sold 54 million copies worldwide" (James Herbert: Wikipedia:__ accessed 13/09/2013.

Hoke, the main character and first-person-narrator, is a US pilot who joined the British air force before his country joined the war.  He is a hard-boiled character who is embittered by his experiences before and after the war.  The novel itself is thus also hard boiled and the reader is propelled headlong through it accompanying Hoke in a series of chases and fights.  Herbert reveals himself to be a master of tension with cliff-hanger chapter ending and surprise plot twists.  There is one steamy sex scene, though it would only offend the most conservative of readers.

A novel could hardly be written about 1948 without Fascism being mentioned, and indeed it is furnished with a band of British Nazis to serve as foe.  The novel is most trite on this issue, but then Hitler really did make those, now comic, speeches complete with huge rhetorical gestures and frenzied, shouted deliveries.  Considerable depth is given to the contemplation of this topic by the inclusion of the character of Wilhelm Stern.  Stern was involved in the war, but he at least seems to be a decent person.  Hoke's reaction to Stern is driven by a wild kind of hatred.  Hoke sees Stern through the eyes of propaganda.  Childishly, he cannot even stand the German's pronunciation of v for w (as in Vilhelm).

Class is another theme covered by the novel.  Hoke and Cissie, another British survivor, are both lower class, but Hoke admires the British upper class' "stiff upper lip".  At one point the survivors wonder what happened to the Royal Family.  But isn't this sort of thing as much a result of propaganda and stereotype as `evil Germans'?  Herbert certainly digs deeper than this.

The theme of madness is also developed in some depth.  Can anyone survive disaster virtually untouched mentally?  Is post-traumatic stress disorder in fact a sane reaction?  Doesn't paranoid caution have survival value?  As we have seen from his reaction to Stern, Hoke is touched by a kind of madness.

Despite the trite appearance of the hard boiled style Herbert has constructed his characters with some depth.  Hoke is very interesting. As we have hinted his judgements should not all necessarily be trusted.  This ambiguity makes the reader think rather than the author doing all the thinking for him.  Muriel, an upper class survivor, is the stereotyped weeping floosy, clinging to the neck of the capable hero, but we should remember that in the era virtually no women worked and at least some were a product of social pressure which told them that they were exactly that: weak and in need of a man.  Cissie is much more a determined woman: feisty and willing to stand up to Hoke.  Modern female readers will like this character.

This novel gets a rarer 5 stars from me because it is both exciting and thematically rich.  The characterization is excellent and the style is intriguing and emotionally engaging.  Herbert manages to be both `popular' and deep: no easy feat.  There is something in here for many different types of people: even the history enthusiast.  ‘48 was first published in 1996, and so in the publishing world is a little old, but this is not a case of ‘past and forgotten’.  It is indeed a classic in the alternate-history/chiller genre.  `48 is well worth the price.

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