Summary: Cormac McCarthy’s book sees Father and Son journey through a post-apocalyptic world. Their only duty is to survive and keep their humanity alive.

The Road by Cormac MacCarthy. Image courtesy of IMP Awards
The Road by Cormac MacCarthy. Image courtesy of IMP Awards


“It isn’t the intensity of a battle that finally gets to some soldiers it’s the battle’s duration.” So says E.B Sledge, author of With The Old Breed. And he should know, having survived a number of battles himself in WW2.


But the protagonists of this story are by no means soldiers. They are survivors, and of what would appear to be a nuclear holocaust: Cormac McCarthy refers again and again to the ash in the air, and the ash on the road.

The road. That’s where the book gets its name. A post-apocalyptic tale of man gone feral. Of suburban angst, but this time with different players. Gone is the grey husband complete with Volvo and striped tie forced on him by middleclass children on father’s day, and enter the tattered form of a humble, withered father, taking care of the only and last thing he cares about on the earth: his son.

The antagonists in The Road are the same as in any horror novel – though this, strictly speaking, is not one – and the same in any story of man’s struggle with man, of survival. The antagonists exist for themselves, willing at every turn to deceive, kill, and destroy. McCarthy opts for a very visceral expression of this angst, choosing an extreme show of man’s cruelty to his own species – cannibalism.


Pulitzer and James Tait Black Memorial Prize winner, Cormac McCarthy handles the tension superbly, and with sensitivity. You are never left without fear for father and son. And yet there is a hope that resonates throughout the book, characterised when son asks father: “Do we carry the fire?” This hope propels the book from just being one of violence, another book of doom to grace our shelves and to take advantage of both individual and collective fears that have grown stronger in recent times.

We will the father to succeed in protecting his son. We feel his pain, and we understand his expectations. In the lulls between violence we are reminded of why we are human. The answer can’t be found in the models of cars we drive or the size of the houses we live in. These things still exist in their world, albeit discarded shells, mere shadows of their former glory. (I mean, who wants to drive a Bentley when someone just shot you through the leg with an arrow?) But we are human because we carry the light. That love and care for each other that exists in some form in even the darkest heart.

In The Road, Cormac McCarthy shows a father fanning this light with particular care. He watches it, realising he has a son watching him. For father it is not just enough to get yet another meal for the day, it is everything to see the day clearly, unclouded by the prism of the ashes of the destruction of times past. The Wind will do its job and clear the ashes from the way. For father it is important that that same wind not blow out the light preserved in both him and his son.


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