Wall of Days is a rather remarkable first novel by Alastair Bruce. It combines several important themes – solitude, our need for, and at times fear of, community; how far do ends justify means; what are the compromises and sacrifices which individuals and society have to make with each other; how do we deal with collective and individual guilt and suffering; the nature of sacrifice; the impossibility of escape from the past; the cyclical lessons of history. It belongs both in the line of novels which are dystopian – although very different, writers such as Atwood and Ursula K Le Guin sprang to mind, as similarly exploring a moral and philosophical territory. Another theme, the sense of the individual who inhabits a nightmare world where he is dislocated from his society, and no longer understands the unstated rules by which that society is operating, points towards Kafka.
However, I was most closely drawn to find the links with Robinson Crusoe (Wordsworth Classics) as a study of isolation, and how to survive, both physically and emotionally when you are the only inhabitant, and the change in dynamics and the nature of relationship when a mysterious ‘other’ enters the stage. Stylistically, the very spareness of Bruce’s writing, plus the strange, misty almost dream-like terrain links him with another South African born writer, Damon Galgut, most particularly In a Strange Room
The central thrust of the story concerns a ‘ruler’ of a community, set in some time and place after society has come to the brink through lack of resources. Post wars, where a peaceful settlement has been made with the major enemy, but the terms of the treaty cast long shadows, and the precise way in which that peace is come to, contains ethical ambiguity. All we know at the start is that this ruler is in exile, alone on his island, banished for life, carefully eking out survival as some sort of punishment. And the unfolding of story – and the hidden narrative which is always occurring in all events, their ‘meaning’, carefully plays out.
I did think, despite the fairly modest length of the book. (237 pages) that there were quite a lot of repetitions in terms of ‘what are we, as readers, learning here?’; the narrative could have been pared back further – part of the real strength of this book IS its spareness so the extraneous is more obvious than it would be with a less well-written book.
I will certainly look forward to seeing how Bruce develops as a writer, from this assured and deep beginning
I originally received this as an ARC as part of the Amazon Vine UK programme