“On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld board he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen.”
Just from this quote – the opening words of the novel – you will see Riddley Walker is a book unlike any other.
The novel is set hundreds of years in the future, long after a nuclear holocaust, with England reduced to effectively an Iron Age level of existence. When his father dies in an accident, young Riddley Walker inherits a shamanistic role among his people, and when he uncovers an attempt to recreate the weapons that once devastated civilization, he is forced to go on the run. Twelve years’ old, though perceptive beyond his tender years, Walker narrates his adventure in the fragmented, fractured Riddleyspeak, a language as broken as the society portrayed in the story.
I found Riddleyspeak a challenge, especially in the early pages, but in time (and with the help of a glossary at the end of the book), I began to adapt to the rhythm and structure. You are forced to slow your reading, and if anything, I think the book would benefit from being read aloud.
The language reinforces the sense we are seeing Riddley’s post-apocalyptic world through his eyes, adding to the force and energy of his descriptions. Hoban’s invented language fizzes with clever word-play, and through this we see echoes of the past, and adds to the sense shared by Riddley and other characters in the story of the heights civilization once reached, and the bitterness and sense of shame that all was lost through human aggression and greedy misuse of their technological wonders. The language can, in places, be very funny, for example in the twisted Kent placenames (Do-it-over = Dover, Horny Boy = Herne Bay) and the scene where Goodparley and Riddley attempt to interpret The Legend of Saint Eustace (written as it is in modern English).
Riddley’s adventurous journey allows Hoban to build a grim portrayal of this ruined England, from the mysterious Eusa folk, the ruined cathedral in Cambry (Canterbury), the wandering packs of wild dogs and the Eusa Show, performed by the ‘Pry Mincer’ and the ‘Wes Mincer’, who on their travelling puppet shows perform allegorical propaganda stories to the , communities. It is an uncompromising vision, and as bleak and well-conceived a dystopia as I have ever encountered.
Infused with mythological, folkloric and religious symbolism, Riddley Walker is rich for endless interpretation; it is not an easy read, but it is worth the effort – Trubba not.
I would also add the edition of Riddley Walker I read had an entertaining introduction by novelist Will Self, which provided some valuable insights and context.