Riddley Walker may just be the most entertainingly slow book I will ever read. Not in plot or pace, but in the way I read it. This was not my choice, but the style of Hoban’s writing working its magic on me. I had to read it slowly.
As the first person narrator of this tale, Riddley puts his thoughts and memories into words in such a way that I was forced into his mind. I was compelled to hear what I assumed his voice sounds like, all because of how my brain interpreted the pronunciation of his unique spellings. He writes phonetically, precisely as the words sound spoken with the accent he and his people have. My favourite of all Riddley-words is “hisper”, used to describe the sound of falling rain, or someone whispering. The poetic onomatopoeia of it sends a shiver through me. I love it.
If I read a page too fast, or tried to skim read, I found myself having to go back and try again, as I hadn’t allowed my brain enough time to absorb his words. To begin with, they required interpretation, and by considering each carefully chosen word in a sentence, the context made their meaning clear. But in no way did this hinder the experience of reading. It wasn’t difficult to do, it simply meant paying attention. I love that I had to work for the story to show itself, as I could have easily glossed over most of the quirky details that make this book so exciting.
The story itself is one of many possible futures that may await us. In this one (2000 years after a nuclear war), the ability to read and write has been lost to most. Interestingly, because of this Riddley is seen as almost an academic type by the more physical labourers amongst his people. For me, the story was a chain reaction of unfortunate events. I would have felt sorry for Riddley, but he never let any of it get to him, he didn’t need my pity.
It all begins with the successful hunt of a boar, and ends with an unsuccessful puppet show. Intrigued? You should be. To summarise the plot as succinctly as I can, I would say it was Riddley’s telling of the journey he went on to prevent the rediscovery of an ancient weapon.
I will not spoil for you the greatest secret that revealed itself to me when reading this book. I will not tell you where it is set. To those familiar with the area, you will probably figure it out not long into the book. However, I am not great with geography and it perhaps took me a little longer than most. I had my suspicions for a while, and then it all fell into place. I was ecstatic.
This book is weird, and great, and I loved every page of it. Reading will never be the same for me again.
Russell Hoban was a genius, and now another inspiration for me as a writer.