Humanity seems to be forever caught in a tension between who we were, who we are now and who we would like to be.
Not everyone is affected by this of course, with a sizeable number of our fellow human beings either unaware of it, or if they do notice its grating presence, distracted by the noisy bells and whistles of modern society such that it is no more bothersome than a far off buzzing blowfly.
Sand, the latest book from master world builder, explorer of the human condition and literary sensation, Hugh Howey, is the book for those of us who cannot escape the grating presence of this tension, all too aware that life is a series of interconnected moments and that we can no more set ourselves adrift from the past or vault unconnected into the future than we can fly to the moon on a wing and a prayer.
We, at least , though have the luxury of choosing to distract ourselves from the interweaving of the past, present and future if we so desire, but the people of Sand, caught in the sand-washed remains of a possible future Earth beset by some form of natural disaster or manmade calamity, are faced with its dread weight every single hard-fought and hard-won day of their miserable lives.
Theirs is an existence marked, or marred by a constant, gritty (literally) battle for survival, their lives dominated either by diving deep into the sand using technology and learnt skill that renders passage through it like swimming through water to retrieved items from cities long ago buried under colossal dunes of granular debris, or spent warding off the remorseless advance of the waves of sand, one heavy, exhausting bucket at a time.
“Life is capricious and cruel and totally fucking random and there is no hope of finding meaning in a nightmare. In a nightmare at least her enraged screams would come out a hoarse whisper, but Vic could not manage even that. Could not manage even a whimper.”
For the family of mother Rose, and children Victoria aka Vic, Palmer, Conner and Rob, abandoned by their once-powerful father to a life more blighted than most thanks to their fall from what passes for the top of the pile in arid Springston to the dregs of society, life is harder than most.
Fractured by the departure of their husband and father who had once been Lord of Springston into a loosely-connected, dispersed collection of hardened individuals (save for Conner who maintains a restless though devoted watch over Rob), the family is all too acutely aware of what their lives once were, but unable to see a way forward to what it could be again beyond running to No Man’s Land, in the footsteps of their father, or fleeing to another nearby town like Lower Pub, hardly a step-up from the town they now occupy.
They are caught in a day-by-day battle for survival until a series of remarkable events forcefully teaches them that the present is not an immutable creation and is capable of being molded and changed, often roughly and without warning, if circumstances and human will permit.
Left to their own devices, it’s highly doubtful anything much about their lives would have changed, but when pirates and bombs and newly-discovered legendary lost cities comes into play, and all the old calcified certainties, such as they are in a post-apocalytic society, are tossed to the fearsome, sand-filled wind, Conner and his family discover than sometimes a future you don’t even recognise will come up and grab you when you least expect it.
What makes Sand such a pleasure to read, an odd thing to say in one way give how grim and dark it is at times, is that even in this bleak world Howey has brought so vividly and fully to life – such is his skill at crafting fully-complete worlds that the society Conner and his dispersed family inhabit seems to spring as a whole living entity straight from the first page – there are moments of happiness, joy, satisfaction, shards of humanity still to be found.
In amongst the battle for survival which consumes not just just Conner’s family but everyone in Springston, there is still the chance to first love to blossom, a family to be redeemed and reunited, love to flourish and life to be snatched from the jaws of death, and scores to be resoundingly levelled.
“Love was earned and hard-fought and cherished. It was Marco’s face and his rough palm on her cheek. It wasn’t something a family got for being a family.”
And that is what keeps you reading briskly from page to page, Howey’s profoundly moving gift of getting down into the minutiae-laden back and forth of human existence, the intimacy of relationships, whole or broken, of filling his stories with humanity rich and full and fully alive or muted and dispirited.
His skill lies in exploring these relational dynamics in ways that make sense in milliseconds and doesn’t lose an ounce of their revealed impact by being wrapped in a fast-moving story that, though it often pauses for existential breath, keeps surging forward much like the dunes surrounding Springston.
Sand is an engrossing, immersive read, that explores with intense meaning and readability, that aforementioned tension and how, for those paying attention, and often even for those not, it can explode and express itself anew in ways ways no one could have ever anticipated.