Saturday, July 7, 2012
Book review: All Fall Down by Sally Nicholls
Fourteen-year-old Isabel lives in a small village in England that has recently suffered from bad weather and food shortages. When the villagers hear news of a strange new disease, they are concerned by how fast it is spreading through the country. This plague strikes everyone equally, whether they are young or old, weak or strong. Nearly half the population of England dies. Many people believe the end of the world has come. Those that survive are left struggling to rebuild their homes and lives. If you read a lot of dystopian novels set in a bleak possible future, this plot probably sounds somewhat familiar. But All Fall Down is set in 1349, when a devastating pandemic of bubonic plague killed between one-third and one-half of Europe's population, changing that society forever.
When the story opens, Isabel is content with her life. She loves her father, stepmother, and five siblings. It is already planned that when she is older, she will marry Robin, a boy she grew up with in the village, who is one of her best friends. Like most Medieval peasants, she's never travelled away from her village. Her family is not truly free, as they must work for the local lord, Sir Edmund. But Isabel knows no other life, and doesn't want anything to change. This made her character seem very realistic, since that's likely how a real girl back then would have thought. She doesn't want to rise above her station in life. She's just an ordinary person with an ordinary life that is completely turned upside down by tragedy.
As the story progresses, Isabel can do nothing but watch as many of her family and friends are killed by the plague. She and some of those she cares about survive, entirely by chance, but are left to figure out how to go on living in a very changed world. The ending was realistic, but honestly (and this is just a personal preference) I wish it had been slightly happier. It was hopeful and not entirely grim, but it didn't end the way I really hoped it would, and I can't say more than that without it being a huge spoiler. But that doesn't reflect on the quality of the writing at all, and I think that this is a story that will appeal to readers who don't normally read historical fiction, since it reads a lot like a dystopian novel. But instead of speculating about possible future disasters and how humanity might react and find a way to survive, the author tells the story of a real disaster which decimated the population of countless countries and caused enormous and permanent social changes.