Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the garden...

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the garden…

“When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.”

The world at the moment seems so full of threats to our happiness, health and, frankly, sanity, that it’s almost a relief to dive into one where the problems are more unrealistic and we can go, “Well, Britain may be about to ostracise itself from the rest of the continent, a madman is a stone’s throw from taking the reins of America, and every celebrity we’ve ever loved has died, but at least we’re not being attacked by giant, carnivorous plants”. Thank heavens for small mercies.

When the novel opens, Bill Masen is recovering in hospital with bandages around his eyes after an incident in which his eyes were damaged by poison from an unusual plant called the triffid. Several feet high, with long stingers and the unnerving ability to move around on three stout legs, triffids have been genetically bred by mistake, but it turns out they’re fairly docile, and produce excellent quality oil. Humanity has, of course, turned them into a commodity.

Bill is unnerved by the silence in the hospital, and upon removing his bandages, he soon finds that the hospital is almost deserted. So are the streets. In fact, there’s barely anyone left at all, and anyone who is around can’t see anything. The night before, the story goes, a comet tore through the atmosphere and anyone who witnessed the lights has lost their sight. Unfortunately, around 95% of the world’s population saw it. Humanity has fallen almost immediately.

Concerned about his chances of survival, Bill tries to find others who can see, eventually rescuing the sighted Josella Playton, a beautiful young woman with an undeserved reputation for writing a supposedly salacious novel. Together they set about finding more survivors, stumbling into new forms of civilisation, and all the while wondering if this blindness and the triffids are related, or simply an unfortunate coincidence. After all, now the plants have an advantage – they know how to survive without sight. And they’re closing in.

I didn’t know much about this classic before embarking on it, just that it’s about a race of intelligent, killer plants. But actually the triffids take a backseat to the issue that the world has come to an end thanks to blindness. It’s a terrifying world that the characters now find themselves in as they struggle to come to terms with what’s happened and work out how they’re going to survive. With such a small percentage of the population able to see, you wonder if there can by any hope at all. Bill is quite flat as a character, but having worked with triffids for many years, he seems to have a better understanding of them than anyone else we meet in the novel. Characters come and go, but this feels quite natural for a story about the apocalypse, as factions form and disperse and people are taken sick or otherwise killed. Often we don’t get closure on events or people’s individual stories, and while disappointing in some ways, it works well as a device in a story like this, because there wouldn’t be a lot of answers. Plus, we’re only seeing things from Bill’s perspective.

The triffids themselves are horrific and genuinely terrifying. I found myself staring with caution at a vase of sunflowers in my lounge after I’d finished it. We humans are terrified by the idea of being wiped out by a species more powerful than us (probably because, particularly in the Western world, all we’ve done throughout history is wipe out those weaker than ourselves) and to here make that villain a plant is a particularly evil twist, as plants are so far removed from what we imagine to be intelligent that they become creepy and horrific. The plants seem to show intelligence, and perhaps malice of forethought, and one cannot help but shudder when they reappear on the page.

The ending is satisfactory too, though I don’t want to spoil it here. It ties up what ends can be tied up, and leaves it open for more stories. Hopefully one day humanity can rebuild. All I know is, I’m going to bed with a bottle of weed killer under the pillow from now on.