Last year Puffin Originals released a series which focuses on presenting the most influential young adult novels of the last century. As a result, many YA novels that were destined to be thrown in the rubbish or left to collect dust on library shelves have been brought to the front of many bookstore’s displays. Their sleek covers and defining orange labels make them instantly recognisable and coveted. One of the most intriguing of these novels was Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O’Brien, whose all-black cover and warning circles heralded the beginnings of dystopia, a genre which now proliferates YA. But how has the novel aged against its thrilling contemporaries?
Whilst a 2015 film adaptation of Z for Zachariah starring Margot Robbie brought the original novel attention, the book remains overshadowed by its more hyped successors, such as The Hunger Games and Divergent, both of which bring the concept of a nuclear apocalypse to the YA genre, asking questions about how society would rebuild itself and what would happen if the unthinkable happened. Z for Zachariah covers the time straight after an apocalypse, when societies are yet to be rebuilt and humanity has been destroyed, or appears to have been. This is a concept that contemporary YA books seem to skip gratuitously over, instead landing us straight in the middle of a civil war or a mad dictatorship. Instead, the novel follows the protagonist Ann, who must learn to survive in her valley, whose hills protected it from fall out and radiation, when her parents and brother leave to find the remains of civilisation and never return.
While following familiar YA themes of survival and growing up, Z for Zachariah raises the stakes as Ann must learn to live as the lone survivor of a nuclear holocaust. However, the trope is quickly disrupted by Mr Loomis, a scientist who was working on the only radiation suit on earth, who arrives in her valley to rest. Although we might feel that games where children are murdered are the only options for a thrilling fantasy of the future, the following events are enough to chill the most stout-hearted individual. The realistic portrayal of two people’s selfish will for survival is excellently drawn as Ann and Mr Loomis come to terms with their situation, from the perspective of a young girl who is both witty and yet heartachingly naïve.
Yet, for all that the slow-moving pace works for the chilling creepiness of an empty world and the traps of two people working against each other, the pace works less well when the protagonists attempt to create a sustainable future, and this is what ages the book. Why O’ Brien thought that long-winded passages detailing the workings of farm equipment would ever be exciting is beyond me, but by doing so, O’Brien firmly sets the book within an age where books for teenagers were in their early days, and frankly, scarce.
Z for Zachariah is about coming to terms with war as much as it is about survival- and although I would have liked more closure from the ending, it provides the same sense of apprehension as the rest of the book and will leave you asking, like you would in an extra-terrestrial sci-fi novel: is there life outside the Valley, and will it be a friend, or a threat?