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Book 5

  1. Amis, Martin — London Fields (471 pages)
  2. Morpurgo, Michael — War Horse (182 pages)
  3. Winterson, Jeanette — Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (177 pages)
  4. Robinson, Bruce — Paranoia in the Launderette (43 pages)
  5. Carter, Angela — Heroes and Villains (152 pages)
Page count
1025

Descriptions I had read of Heroes and Villains made it sound like some sort of post-apocalyptic young adult novel, but it is anything but YA. The story does take place in a post-apocalyptic world where people are divided into three groups: the Professors, repository of all knowledge of civilisation who live in protected enclaves or communes; the Barbarians, savage, nomadic people; and the Out People, barely recognisable as human, who live in the ruins of cities and have lost all trace of civilisation.

Marianne is a Professor's daughter who watches her brother get killed during a Barbarian raid and when her father dies years later has become so dissatisfied with the Professor way of life and curious about what exists beyond that she rescues a Barbarian during a subsequent raid and flees with him. The story thus becomes about turning stereotypes on their heads. Who are the Heroes and who are the Villains? Certainly the Professors, the assumed heroes, don't seem very heroic. The chief Barbarian, Jewel, is set up as a hero of sorts, but then he (very graphically) rapes Marianne. Then, to further complicate things, Carter would have us believe that the rape was perhaps a necessary evil, perhaps the very thing that was required to save Marianne (and no doubt infuriating many readers). Nothing is ever what it seems, each character something other than what appearances initially suggest, and by the end the entire social structure is subverted.

Heroes and Villains is a complex work, rife with symbolism and Shakespearean allusions, alive with vivid imagery and rippling with eroticism. However, while there are passages of startling beauty and much that gives pause for thought, the narrative often seems overwhelmed by all its cleverness (the in-your-face symbolism, the frequent literary allusions) so that, feeling a bit like an academic exercise, it is sometimes difficult to care about the story or the characters. That said, the four quotations that precede the novel would suggest that this is precisely the point, that by distorting everything to grotesque, Gothic extremes the narrative can transcend itself to comment on more universal truths.

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