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Friday, 15 October 2010

Review of I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

First published in 1956, the Corgi edition I read was published in 1971, when it cost £0.25p in the UK and 80 cents in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
I generally don’t prĂ©cis a book when I review it. I am interested in the language, structure and the way the writer has allowed his characters to drive the story. But, if you’re unfamiliar with this particular tale, let me explain that it is the story of the last ‘normal’ human male alive following a catastrophe resulting in part from a nuclear war. Matheson’s take on this situation is entirely different from any other I have come across, blending the fabled powers of vampires and the undead with a good deal of psychology and medicine as he tries to explain how and why the world’s population has been reduced to a particularly brutal version of cannibalistic vampirism.
His hero, Robert Neville, almost the only substantial character in the story, fights an unending battle against the infected souls who want his blood. The purists will undoubtedly rail at the large amount of ‘tell’ that describes the man, his world and his attempts to deal with it. And I admit I would have liked a little more ‘show’. There are times when the author forgets that he is writing from the point of view of his character and describes elements that the character would not know about. But the story develops, so that what begins as a tale of survival and unrelenting fighting for existence, becomes an examination of a man embroiled in a war against his own fears and memories.
Matheson has done a deal of research into matters to do with blood, so that his explanations of the reasons for the bacterial infection and its peculiar manifestations are made at least credible.
But, science and myth apart, this is really a tale about a man discovering himself through adversity. It is very andocentric and the only female characters are not well drawn, nor given the sort of status they truly deserve; the American male of the 1950s showing through in the superficial and patronising portrayal of two women who could have been truly heroic.
In the end, in spite of its failures and faults, this is a good read; compelling and thought provoking, especially for its time.

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