A Brand New Kind of Castaway: Review of The Stranding by Kate Sawyer
Natasha C. Calder
The Stranding. By Kate Sawyer. Hodder & Stoughton, June 24, 2021.
From Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe to Andy Weir’s The Martian, castaway narratives have long been a mainstay of popular fiction. Meriting their own genre—the robinsonade—they take as their focus individuals that, deprived of all comforts, must learn to survive in a hostile natural environment. Kate Sawyer’s The Stranding is one such tale. It charts the journey of Ruth, a Londoner who, in fleeing a claustrophobic relationship, ends up in New Zealand just in time for the end of the world. Taking shelter in the carcass of a beached whale—itself stranded—Ruth survives and starts to build a new life. Because it uses global cataclysm as its isolating event, The Stranding can be further categorised as part of the post-apocalyptic robinsonade sub-genre, where it keeps company with such fine works as George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides, John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids, and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
There’s much to be gained from reading The Stranding in this light and, in particular, as a companion text to The Road. Both grapple with the same fundamental issue: the protagonists are tasked not merely with survival but learning how to keep hope alive for the next generation. “We’re carrying the fire,” says the nameless man to the nameless boy of The Road. It’s what keeps them safe, it’s what makes them “the good guys”. Sawyer taps into the same imagery in The Stranding when Ruth and fellow survivor Nik teach their children to “always leave the fire alight” in the hope the smoke will signal to other survivors—in the hope there are other survivors. It’s this tradition of hope that carries the boy of The Road and Frankie and Māia of The Stranding through the eventual loss of their parents and into the uncertain future.
Other similarities abound: like McCarthy, Sawyer’s preference is to hint rather than specify; both provide the reader with just enough information to infer a nuclear event has devastated the worlds of each narrative. Further details aren’t forthcoming and, even if they were, there’s a sense the characters wouldn’t be interested. Indeed, in the buildup to the nuclear event of The Stranding, Ruth refuses to engage with current affairs, in sharp contrast to her boyfriend who uses an obsessive news habit to make her feel insignificant. But he doesn’t survive; Ruth does. Even though he prides himself on being better informed, he’s not, it transpires, better prepared. In both The Road and The Stranding, knowledge of how the world ended and why isn’t useful: it cannot be eaten or drunk, it cannot provide shelter or protection. This is key to understanding both books. Unable to turn to their surroundings for help, the protagonists must look inwards for strength and resilience to become self-sufficient (in all senses of the term).
However, our protagonists aren’t completely isolated. By refusing to linger on the mechanics of their worlds, The Road and The Stranding create ample space to focus on the human relationships that form the heart of each book: McCarthy’s father and son; Sawyer’s Ruth and her young family. Both texts use this space to explore the nature of love and interdependence; both do so with deep compassion. But it’s here the texts diverge for, unlike McCarthy, Sawyer takes that space and develops it using a second literary tradition that’s rarely paired with the robinsonade: women’s fiction.
This combination will seem unnatural to some. For one thing, post-apocalyptic robinsonades and women’s fiction are typically targeted at very different audiences. For another, the structure of The Stranding can leave the reader feeling disoriented at first, alternating as it does between those chapters centred on Ruth’s post-nuclear-event survival and those on her relationship with gaslighting boyfriend Alex. But Sawyer trusts her readers to come along with her and the risk pays off. The narrative settles into a compelling rhythm and, before long, it starts to become clear that these two seemingly opposed genres have a great deal in common.
Women’s fiction isn’t so clearly delimited as the post-apocalyptic robinsonade, stretching as it must to cover a variety of stories written by and about women, but it usually concerns “a woman on the brink of life change and personal growth. Her journey details emotional reflection and action that transforms her and her relationships with others”. This is only part of the Romance Writers of America’s definition, but it captures the salient points—all of which, if shorn of gendered language, also apply to the post-apocalyptic robinsonade. These, too, are stories of personal transformation, self-knowledge and acceptance. And they follow similar trajectories: first the protagonist must survive some catastrophic event and then work out how to live in a world that—even if only for them—has changed utterly. Whether that catastrophe is of a personal nature or something more geopolitical, the impact is the same: the protagonist must reflect and rebuild. In short, they must become something other—something more—than what they were. If self-actualisation is the point of Beth O’Leary’s Flat Share, then so too is it the point of Robert A. Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky. Both books—both genres—pose the same question in different guises: who would you become if freed from all present constraints?
Tellingly, in The Stranding, the cataclysm happens twice, interleaving chapters either delineating the fallout of the nuclear event (“After”) or the buildup to Ruth’s escape from her boyfriend (“Before”), beginning and ending the book with catastrophes that, in bracketing the narrative, become themselves bracketed together as equivalent: both are traumatic, both push Ruth to change for the better. In the aftermath of a failed relationship and a destroyed planet, she finally comes into her own. It’s revelatory: both in showing how capable she is and underlining that she was once doubly imprisoned, trapped with a toxic partner within a society that enforces further constraints and pressures. Released from both—and stranded though she is on a single patch of beach—Ruth finds a new freedom, something that’s particularly played out in her sense of body image, her old hang-ups about body hair falling away as the book progresses.
Whereas The Road supplies no “before” (we have only the man, the boy, and the hell through which they walk), The Stranding provides a privileged view into an earlier life, which helps the reader to appreciate the journey Ruth makes from being dependent (upon her parents, her friends, her partner) to learning how to become independent, to becoming dependable for her children. When all regulations have fallen away, she gives them a moral code by which to live; when all others have perished, she gives them a model for humanity. Like so much of The Stranding, it’s perfectly judged and beautifully executed. Sawyer has done something remarkable here; giving us a new exemplar of the post-apocalyptic robinsonade that will surely provide the pattern for many more in the years to come.
Natasha C. Calder studied English Literature at Trinity College Dublin and then completed an M.Phil in Medieval Literature at the University of Cambridge. She is also a graduate of Clarion West 2018 and her work has appeared in The Stinging Fly, Lackington’s and Curiosities, amongst others. She is one half of writing duo Calder Szewczak, whose first book, The Offset—about a world in which all children must pick one of their biological parents to die as a carbon offset for their own life—will be published by Angry Robot in September 2021.
This review was commissioned by editor Jake Casella Brookins from a hard pitch in August 2021. The author and editor were not acquainted prior to the commissioning of this review. A review copy was not arranged by ARB.