Book Review Saturday – ‘After the Snow’

I’ll say this about S.D. Crockett’s ‘After the Snow’: the cover image lets you know what you’re in for.

Image: panmacmillan.com

Image: panmacmillan.com

The book’s title, and the author’s name, are written in such small font that it’s easy to overlook them completely. What overwhelms, on the other hand, is the image of the dog skull and the hastily scribbled words all over the background – words which, we learn as we read, belong to Willo, our fifteen-year-old narrator. This is fitting, because ‘After the Snow’ is a book which does its best to absorb the reader into a world of its own making, a future world where the damage done to the environment in our present day has resulted in almost neverending winter. It uses Willo’s dialect and idiosyncratic language, and his relationship with the dog-spirit he carries with him, as well as the detailed and palpable descriptions of the crushingly cold landscape, to achieve this.

I’m not entirely sure it’s successful.

There were parts of this book which I really admired – the descriptions of the snowdrifted landscape, for one, and the sometimes beautiful language employed, as well as the fire at the heart of Willo’s character – but there were a lot of things about this book that I didn’t like so much. I found Willo’s dialect hard to process, at first, but it did get easier after a few pages; however, there were times when I found his voice frustrating. I did love the character, though, and his determination and bravery, so Willo kept me reading. I also found the book’s pacing difficult to understand – not a lot happens for at least the first half of the book, or at least that’s how it felt to me; it seemed that too much was then crammed into the second half, leading to a strangely offbeat ending.

As for the plot: Willo lives with his family, deep in the wilds of the Welsh countryside, far from the prying eyes of the totalitarian-seeming government. They eke out a living, and seem very happy – cold, deprivation and near-starvation notwithstanding. Lacking a formal education, or much exposure to the world outside his immediate family, Willo has a unique way of dealing with the world; he has a dog spirit, which he hears inside his head at moments of crisis. He wears a dog skull on his hat, and has made a cloak out of the dog’s tanned hide. I thought this was a marvellous touch, and really made Willo come alive for me. I only wish that S.D. Crockett had allowed more time to the voice of the dog, and made more use of it – I was hoping for a relationship like that between Todd and his dog Manchee in ‘The Chaos Walking’ trilogy, but it wasn’t to be. Nevertheless I thought it was a very realistic and touching detail, this relationship between Willo and his ‘dog’, and it more than anything else really described the world in which Willo and his family live.

Willo’s family have been taken away as the novel opens. We learn about his father Robin and his stepmother Magda, his sisters and brothers (particularly Alice, ‘who got a baby with [Geraint, their elderly neighbour]. And she only been fourteen’ (p. 25). We realise that Willo and his dog-spirit are alone now, without any idea where the family have been taken or why they are gone. Willo suspects Geraint is behind it, and goes on a mission to find his family and bring Geraint to justice. In the course of this he meets Mary, a young girl whose father has left her and her young brother Tommy in an abandoned house while he searches for food. Willo knows the children are doomed if he doesn’t help them, but the dog-spirit – in the interests of keeping Willo alive – counsels him to keep going and forget them. Eventually, he manages to rescue Mary, and she travels with him on his somewhat aimless journey toward retribution.

When the story moves to ‘the City’, it begins to pick up pace. We read about living conditions so dire that I could barely believe it, and a government with an iron grip on its people. Crime and cruelty are the orders of the day. Willo (in one of these annoying coincidences that can crop up in books, sometimes) becomes apprenticed to a man who can lead him right to a powerful woman who holds a life-shattering secret about Willo, and what has happened to his family; before he can escape to join them, however, he is apprehended by enemies he didn’t even realise he had.

This book is a strange juxtaposition of quiet and loud. For the first 130 pages or so, we have Willo in the wilderness, dealing with wild animals and hunger and cold; there are some gruesome scenes, particularly when he is trying to rescue Mary and her brother, but nothing too stomach-turning. Then, we come to the second half of the book, and it’s like someone switched the colour contrast up. There are scenes and descriptions of such horror that I wondered whether I was reading a book aimed at children – I think, despite the differences between it and a ‘typical’ YA book, this story is more suited to older teenagers – and there were times when I felt it was a little too graphic for me. I understand we’re dealing with a world in which people have to do anything they can to survive, and that doesn’t lead to civilised behaviour, but there were some scenes which will stay with me for a long time. It was powerful and effective storytelling, but rather bleak. The book’s ending seems to come out of nowhere, then, and – being honest – it didn’t make a lot of sense to me. The darkness that led up to it suddenly explodes into light, and it was a strange contrast. There were also so many brilliant details that we didn’t hear enough about, including why China is the new superpower in this strange world, and what ANPEC (the government entity keeping the City in lockdown) actually is. We meet several characters that seem pointless, serving only to get Willo out of a bind, and there isn’t enough detail about this world and how it operates to really get a handle on understanding it. I thought that was a shame, because there are some really excellent ideas in this book, and I would have liked to explore its story world a bit more deeply.

Having said all that, I enjoyed the book. I loved Willo and his strange, unique voice, and I loved Mary, the brave little girl who fights like a tiger for survival. The picture this novel paints of the future is horrifying, but that’s the point, I guess. It’s a future we’re heading for, with our eyes open. One aspect of the novel which I found strange was the vituperative way in which things like recycling and wind power were spoken about – they were decried as being worse than useless in a world which could have harnessed nuclear and large-scale solar power (huge banks of solar panels in Africa, which are owned and operated by China, are mentioned in passing); part of the blame for the state of the world is laid at the feet of those who were too busy sorting their rubbish and spending millions on ‘winfarms’, as Willo calls them, to bother about proper ways of dealing with the environment. I’m not sure I agree with that, entirely, but I do take the point. Unless something drastic is done, the world we will bequeath to our descendants is one not too far removed from that in which Willo lives – and I hope I won’t be alive to see it.

Give this one a go if you’re looking for a dystopian novel with a difference – just make sure you’ve a strong stomach for the second half.

Happy reading!

A replica of Willo's 'dog hat', which was offered as a prize by the publishers of 'After the Snow.' Image: goodreads.com

A replica of Willo’s ‘dog hat’, which was offered as a prize by the publishers of ‘After the Snow.’
Image: goodreads.com

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