Minor Spoilers Below.
If you didn’t make it through the excerpt above, there’s a chance Riddley Walker isn’t for you. Told entirely in a severely degraded form of English, Riddley Walker follows the titular protagonist through approximately two weeks of his life, from his Naming Day on his 12th birthday. The setting in which Riddley Walker takes place is post-apocalyptic in the extreme. Although it’s never made explicit, it’s implied that there was a nuclear war which literally blew England (and possibly the entire world) back to the Stone Age. There are no guns, no computers, no electricity, and only the vaguest traces of the modern world remain. The government, what’s left of it, spreads information through religious/political puppet shows called Eusa Shows. Eusa himself may or may not have been a real person, but is now remembered mainly from Eusa Story, a religious myth which tries to explain, in terms the remaining humans can understand, what the human race used to be capable of and how they’ve ended up where they are today.
Summarizing the plot itself, which revolves around the attempts of several factions to create gunpowder, is pointless, since the real beauty of Riddley Walker comes from the themes and, especially, the language. As mentioned above, there’s hardly a sentence in the entire book written in modern English, save a short story about a painting of St. Eustace which is immediately (mis)interpreted by Goodparley, the acting Pry Mincer. Words are respelled and repurposed, first, to create dual meanings (such as “oansome” for lonesome, which rolls “on my own”, ”lonesome”, and “one” into one word); secondly, as an easy way of world-building—it’s immediately obvious that things here are different; and thirdly, to draw us into Riddley’s world and viewpoint—We’re forced to slow down and experience the world at the same pace as Riddley.
There’s a lot to this book, which took me a couple months to get through in spite of being only a couple hundred pages long, but I honestly don’t have a lot to say. There are difficult sections, but there are also moments of transcendent beauty, like the passage above, and their sheen is that much greater as a result of the ruined world surrounding them.