Wednesday, January 28, 2009

5. The Caves of Night by John Christopher

The Caves of Night pictureThough 2008 was the year dedicated to John Christopher, I will still read a book by him from time to time. He was prolific and I have a long way to go before I can say I've read most of his work. He's also just a really good and entertaining writer.

The Caves of Night was written immediately after his post-apocalyptic masterpiece No Blade of Grass. It's the story of a middle-aged couple who take their annual vacation in the Austrian countryside. The husband is an avid spelunker and many years before had discovered a cave system that was known to the locals but not to the caving community or tourists. They are regulars at a small inn and at the beginning of the book, meet a young newlywed couple on their honeymoon. This year, also, the Graf is returned from a Russian prison, where he had been held since the end of the war (the book takes place in the mid 50's). The Graf, Albrecht, is a local prince and landed gentry and owns a large estate and the rights to much of the countryside. He is a pleasant and charming man and invites the couple over for dinner, allowing the husband to freely explore the caves.

Relations develop between the two couples and Albrecht over the following days as they spend time hanging out together. The caving husband, though, spends most of his days in the cave, while his wife and the newlyweds go swimming and riding with Albrecht. He is a civilized, drained man, prematurely aged from his stay in the Russian prison who reveals early on that he has lost any real motivation for living. He spends his life, he claims, in lacklustre pursuit of minor pleasures. He also hints that he has given his life a time limit. In his pursuit of pleasure, he makes a move on the caver's wife. She takes it at first as just a pass he would give to any woman, but over time, she succumbs and something real does develop between them and she starts to have an affair. She is happily married to her husband for 16 years but the Graf somehow wakens up something in her that she didn't know she wanted.

As I've said before, almost all of Christopher's books deal with themes of adultery and male sexual anxiety. The protagonists are often males put into the passive position of having to accept some sexual transgression on the part of the wife (though transgression is not the best word as the woman are often passive victims themselves, either of sexual assault or their own passions; though their reactions are often portrayed as quite controlled and rational). In The Caves of Night, this theme is made central. At least the first half of the book follows the development of the affair between the wife and Albrecht.

Of course, they are always talking about everybody going into the caves together one day and they do so, squeezing through a smaller passage to see some other cave paintings. It is risky and the caver husband is warning everybody to not raise their voice and watch their step. You know the young newlywed couple is going to do something stupid and they do, bringing down the small passage that was their exit.

Now the two couples and the Graf are stuck in this cave system. Led by the competent caver husband (whose wife is cheating on him with one of the dudes he is leading), they try to go deeper into the system in the hopes that they can maybe find another exit, or hook up with a known cave system on the far side of the mountain. And thus the second half of the book is more of a caving adventure, with the tension of the affair constantly lurking.

Even though the majority of the book is more of a psychological exploration of an affair, it turned out to be a really enjoyable read for me. Christopher is really good at describing things. He brings out the beauty of nature in a few quick, evocative sentences. He also does a good job of making it clear in the reader's head where the character are when those things matter (such as trying to escape from a cave). The cave scenes are really gripping. I think I may have some significant fear of getting caught in a cave, because reading the parts where the passage really narrows made my stomach tense up in an unpleasant way. I had to read them really fast, which is a testimony to his writing as well.

Caves of Night is a "mature" novel. The conclusion in the cave takes up at least a third of the book and is truly gripping. But this story is more about marriage and love and hope. It's not the adventure book the cover claims. It does explore those themes in an interesting way and never sacrifices the narrative. All in all, another excellent novel by John Christopher.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

An excellent find. I suspect this book is long out of print and I have never seen it in any shops.

Wow, he really sticks with that psychosexual drama theme among all of his books.