When I read a review by Sarah James (here) about a book called For Tamara I ordered it immediately. Sarah wrote: ‘The setting is a post-apocalyptic one, mostly in the form of a letter from the narrator to her daughter, Tamara.’
These kind of post-apocalyptic stories really appeal to me and I always read them when I get a chance. I wonder if it was because I had to read Z for Zachariah when I was 11 years old at school. I have certainly never forgotten her struggle to survive and her lucky valley that was not contaminated. (Zombie Plan: perhaps Wales is a good place to live)
I can remember reading The Stand by Stephen King as a young teen and how convincing (and discomforting) the idea was of a killer flu wiping out society and leaving behind good guys and bad guys to fight over the remaining resources. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood is a book I loved reading recently and it also has a deadly flu virus decimating the population apart from a few folks who are genetically modified. I am Legend by Richard Matheson has a virus that results in most people turning into a zombie/vampire type and I identified with it too much because one of the survivors is called Ruth. I loved the Terminator films and Mad Max when I was a teenager. Despite the depressing plot lines showing the world, as we know it, totally destroyed, I find these novels and films surprisingly uplifting because at the heart of them they are all about human survival.
They show people battling against all types of difficulties from lack of food and shelter to zombies or cannibals trying to eat them. Full of useful tips for humanity like: don’t let computers have too much intelligence or create flu virus strains to use as weapons; they will always come back to bite you. I like Zombieland‘s 32 rules (the first one is cardio because you need to be able to run away). I didn’t read the Walking Dead comics but the TV series finally got me over my fear of zombies. After a few seasons I don’t even flinch when they start gnawing on a thigh or rip a cheek off. I just lament the fact they are sheltering in tents (!) when they should be in a fortified, walled mansion type place. (Zombie Plan: find a castle with a moat)
I started a novel a few years ago, which I had to stop writing and thinking about because it was making me anxious. I set it in the ‘not too distant future’ and the characters were three children, an older girl with two younger brothers who were trying to survive in a world that had completely broken down. Her parents and older sister had left them to find supplies and not come back. The book started with the girl deciding they had to try and find other people. It was not original in the slightest! It was fun to write at first but it quickly became depressing as I was obviously modelling the children on my own and imagining how they would cope when resources ran out and enemies were all around them.
Post-apocalypse needs a lot of rules and advice to survive. Especially for children. But what if you weren’t there to give the advice to your child. That is an anxious thought.
Sarah Lang has created an extremely interesting poetry book that focuses on this thought so that it reads as a long poem from the nameless mother to the child of the title ‘Tamara.’ Unlike some poetry books where I will dip in and out, I read this like a novel from beginning to end. The first, most striking thing about it is the way it captures a mind flitting between different thoughts. I think Lang does this extremely well and it creates a feeling of anxious panic throughout the poem. One second the narrator is assuring Tamara that nothing was her fault, saying sorry she can’t protect her and then in the next line she writes, I’m sorry I cannot explain a braid./ It is like a flip-turn./ Someone will show you.
This movement (or switch) between thoughts defines a fast thinking mind who is desperate to remember and record everything. There is an ominous feeling throughout: before it is too late. Before the mother dies and is no longer there to tell her daughter these important things. And how she met her father is just as important as how to identify the place to perform a tracheotomy with rubber tubing. The mother narrator is tired, that feeling comes through the lines. She is pressured and has hardly any time to dash down these precious few lines to her child, but still she writes all she can; a jumble of overlapping thoughts full of anger, loneliness and love. Sometimes she addresses the absent husband directly, but it is all for Tamara. A record of everything the mother can fit in there.
Your mum is writing this with a broken thumb./ This: for you.
Hasty sketches of maps, constellations and herbs litter the pages providing a text book of sorts for the girl to use in future. The future is unknown in the poem and so is the cause of the disaster. Nothing is explained and remains a mystery to the reader and the narrator. Clues are dropped, enigmatic and confusing; It has been 18 days. Since what? The last line of the book says; The explosions were brilliant, blinding./ Then clouds./ We’ll never know. I think it is an excellent line to end on because the mystery permeates the entire poem.
The threat is always there and it is an unknown menace because the narrator does not give details; We need to set up a perimeter, fortify it, and set up an alarm system that runs back to the house./ Not just noise but an advance warning.
This mystery works in this form, in contrast to a novel where more detail would be described. The reader is left to fill in the story with their imagination. Time moves forward, from the mother thinking about naming the baby Tamara to the narrator still missing her husband and mentioning Tamara’s thoughts; I know after 9 years I am supposed to be over you./ Sadly no-one can compete./ Plus Tamara wants to meet you.
The mother narrator’s voice is strong and vivid. I had a clear image of her in my head after reading this book. The theme for me was always protecting the child. The mother struggles with this terrible new world, aches for her husband who has gone to try to help combat it in some way and constantly writes down how to survive in this place. Her advice is harsh, informative and brutal. There is no time for gentleness, although the text is full of tenderness and truth.
Showing once more how the narrator’s mind flits from one thought to another, in the line quoted above the narrator is missing her husband who she still loves just as fiercely. The line directly before that one is ; I haven’t written enough about how to protect yourself./ Don’t scream./ Take a breath. / Jam a screwdriver in his eye.
This movement of thoughts captures an anxious, exhausted stream of consciousness from a character who is desperate to protect her child. Tamara must survive. I believe she will.
(Zombie Plan: Keep a screwdriver on you at all times)