This is the original book on which two BBC TV series were based. The first ran for three seasons between 1975-77. The second ran for two seasons between 2008-10 before being killed on a cliffhanger. Post-apocalyptic stories are nothing new and the idea behind it is one of the most enduring – a disease that wipes out 99.99% of the population.
The main character is Abby Grant, a middle-class, middle-aged woman with a teenage son away at boarding school. Her comfortable existence comes to an end one day when people around her start dying. She herself gets sick… but unlike many others, she survives and wakes up in a new world where the safety nets we had come to take for granted, are gone.
Written in the early-mid 1970s, it is very much a product of its time but so much of it feels timeless too. You can gloss over these things for the most part. In other ways it is quite forward for a book written in the 1970s – its main protagonist is a woman, for example. You might chuckle at reading how people are pulling chokes out on the cars they are trying to get started. For the most part, it’s only little things like this and not much of a distraction – more like quirks.
Abby is very much central to the plot. She soon meets up with Greg, Jenny, Sarah, Tom and several others who will be familiar to anyone who has seen either series. My opinion of the book is heavily clouded by the TV series although I would say not completely unfairly. Here, most of the characters have little to no characterisation. There are hints at who they are, and the 2008 series is surprisingly respectful of the source text but takes it to the next level in fleshing them out. None of them is truly revealed to be the people they really are – little more than a few throwaway lines to tantalise but the book persistently fails to make good on character development.
Much of this feels wasted, especially for the characters and lack of plot development. Their character traits so well-hinted at the beginning, and especially their flaws, really come to nothing at all. This is one of those things I can’t tally up with the series but it is a major flaw in the writing that I could not forgive. Characters decide to do something and then quickly give up. We see little of their attempts to survive, although the threats of groups of people around them is an element particularly well-handled.
The breakdown of society and the sudden collapse is well-handled. But once the disease has taken its toll, everything goes downhill. I feel this book could and should have been double the length that it actually is and would only have been improved for the extra length if only to come to understand the characters more. So much happens that deserved more exploration than it got. Too few characters appear to make good on early motivations. Too few situations are explored. Too much is opened, presented and then left. They don’t act like real people would act. They don’t act as I would expect anyone to act. In that, it’s a bitter disappointment feeling rather like an unfinished novel. 3/5