The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

The Chrysalids is the book that was chosen for me in the recent Classics Club Spin. The deadline for posting our Spin book reviews was supposed to be yesterday, but I got confused with the dates and am a day late! Anyway, after enjoying all of the books I’ve previously read by John Wyndham – The Midwich Cuckoos, Chocky and The Day of the Triffids – I had high hopes for this one and wasn’t disappointed. It’s another fascinating, exciting and thought-provoking novel – although not quite what I’d been expecting.

I deliberately tried not to read too much about this book before I started it, so I assumed the Chrysalids must be some sort of monstrous alien beings similar to the Triffids. However, this is not really that kind of book at all; it’s a post-apocalyptic novel exploring the changes in society brought about by an unspecified (though presumably nuclear) disaster known as the ‘Tribulation’. There are no monsters, although some of the characters view their fellow humans that way.

Our narrator, David Strorm, was born many years after the Tribulation in rural Labrador, a part of the world where normal life has resumed to some extent, although the ‘Old People’ have been almost forgotten and their technological advances have been lost in the mists of time. The people of Labrador are living an almost medieval existence, ruled by religious zealots who believe that as God created humans in his image, all human life should conform to a set of strict specifications. Anyone who is found to deviate from this in any way is considered a blasphemy and exiled to the Fringes, a wild and lawless region to the south. Unfortunately, as a result of the nuclear apocalypse, mutations have become very common.

David is still a child when his best friend Sophie is banished to the Fringes after her shoe comes off, revealing a sixth toe. Having witnessed Sophie’s fate, David becomes aware of the importance of keeping his own mutation – the power of telepathy – a secret. A mental abnormality should be easier to hide than a physical one, but the very fact that he and his telepathic friends look just like everyone else makes them a bigger threat to the religious leaders who are determined to identify and drive out every blasphemy. Can David and the others continue to keep their special ability hidden – and what will happen if they get caught?

What makes The Chrysalids so interesting is that although it was published in 1955 and set in some distant point in the future, the themes and ideas it explores are still very relevant to our lives today. Intolerance, bigotry and prejudice have sadly not gone away and there is still a tendency for some groups to judge others for not being ‘people like us’. The Chrysalids raises the interesting question of what being normal actually means and why any of us should have the right to decide whether another person is normal or not. Later in the novel another community is introduced who also consider their own way of life to be superior and to them it’s the religious fundamentalists of Labrador who are seen as primitive and savage.

Like the other Wyndham novels I’ve read, the science fiction elements in this one are really quite understated; the main focus is on the changes in society and in daily life caused by an apocalyptic or paranormal incident. I think this is why I enjoy reading Wyndham so much even though I don’t consider myself a big fan of science fiction in general. However, although I loved most of this book and found it quite gripping, I felt that the message became a bit unclear towards the end, possibly intentionally, with the introduction of that other community (it’s difficult to discuss it properly here while trying to avoid spoilers). Still, I was left with a lot to think about, which is always a good thing, and I wished there had been a sequel, or at least a few more chapters, as it seemed there was a lot more to learn about this world and our characters’ place in it. If you’ve read this book I would love to hear your thoughts!

This is book 31/50 from my second Classics Club list.

21 thoughts on “The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

  1. margaret21 says:

    Oh goodness, I was a teenager when I read this – and all John Wyndham’s books. I really ought to read them again now that I’m old and – er- wise. But how to squeeze them in among all the other books that I haven’t read even once?

    • Helen says:

      I think these are the sort of books where you would pick up different things as an adult than you would as a teenager, so probably worth re-reading. I can sympathise, though – I used to re-read books all the time, but these days there’s just too much else to read!

  2. Cyberkitten says:

    I read this about 45 years ago as a teenager so, as you can imagine, a lot of the themes hit home – what is ‘normal’ etc.. Although I can enjoy (immensely) the more whizzy techy SF I’ve always enjoyed the social, cultural and psychological aspects more. Using the SF elements as the backdrop and telling a HUMAN story. That’s what I like best. As a BIG fan of Wyndham I’m glad you’re enjoying him so much.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I think that’s exactly why I like Wyndham’s books – it’s the human side of the stories that interests me and the way he uses the SF elements as a starting point to explore social and cultural issues.

      • Lory says:

        Sounds like the reason why I enjoy Ursula K. LeGuin’s books so much, so maybe I should check Wyndham out. He does seem to raise some very interesting and important questions and sometimes those can be best worked out through a story.

  3. Calmgrove says:

    One of the Wyndham novels I never read back in the day, so I’m glad they’ve been reissued so I can read them when I’m ready! This has always sounded up my street so this is high up my list, Helen even more certainly after your review!

  4. Lark says:

    I’ve got a lot of Wyndham’s books on my classics reading list, and now it looks like I need to add this one to that list, too. I admire when a book written back in 1955 still has relevance to our world today. I guess that’s what makes it a classic! 🙂

  5. FictionFan says:

    I re-read this recently and thought it was very thought-provoking and, as you say, still remarkably relevant to many of the big debates of today around difference and inclusion. I also found the message a bit confused, or confusing. It seemed on the one hand that he was arguing for tolerance, but on the other hand he seemed to be showing each new group that came along coming to think of themselves as superior in just the same way as David’s parents and their community. I don’t know if he was intentionally suggesting that difference will never be fully tolerated, but that was kind of how the book made me feel in the end. And I didn’t admire the attitudes of the later groups any more than those of the first group. That’s all a bit vague to try to avoid spoilers, but I hope you can make out what I mean!

    • Cyberkitten says:

      Maybe that was the point – the idea that *every* group considers itself to be the only ‘correct’ benchmark against which everyone else is measured and often found wanting…. which they’re not (of course). So, rather than treating people as either part of the ‘in’ group or ‘out’ group we should just treat them as people. But that’s maybe a more modern interpretation of 50’s thinking?

      • FictionFan says:

        Yes, it’s quite hard sometimes to decide how much we’re interpreting these older novels through our own values and attitudes rather than being able to think ourselves into the mindset of the time they were written. I wasn’t at all sure what Wyndham intended here.

        • Cyberkitten says:

          That’s a very good point. We have what the author intended to get across to his 1955 readership and we here we are, almost 70 years later reading it through *our* life experiences and a LOT has happened in the world since ’55!! If individuals derive different things from the same text at the same time/year/era it’s no surprise that different people separated by decades or longer derive (sometimes) VERY different things – and probably things that the author never wanted or ever intended to convey! One of the endless fascinating aspects of reading older or Classic works [grin]

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I remember seeing your review a while ago, FictionFan, and have just gone back to read it again – we seem to have had similar feelings about this one. I think the change of message towards the end was probably intentional, but it was a bit unclear and I would have preferred something more positive, I think!

  6. Brona's Books says:

    Ahhh that’s what my cc spin was missing – the part about being left with lots to think about. It was entertaining but not thought provoking.

    But you have reminded me how much I enjoyed my John Wyndham phase 20 yrs ago. I wonder if they would hold up to a reread?

    • Helen says:

      Well, it depends on your mood, I suppose. Sometimes I find that entertaining is enough – other times I want something deeper! I think John Wyndham’s books would probably hold up well to re-reading. They seem like the sort of books where you would pick up on different things at different stages of your life.

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