The Secret People by John Wyndham (1903 – 1969) is the author’s first novel, although he published it under a pseudonym. It was first published in 1935; I read the Coronet 1977 edition with cover art by Colin Hay. I really like the cover art, but I don’t really think it representative of the novel. I had not read any Wyndham before, but I like to start, generally, early in an author’s career and work my way forward.
Knowing that it was the author’s first novel and that it was published in 1935 had me a bit trepidatious because one never knows what such things could include or what their tone might be. Overall, I was really impressed with this novel. Ultimately, its a well-thought out storyline with a very nice science fiction grounding. I think the characters are believable and interesting. Usually, when readers talk about characters from this time (1930s) some comments are made regarding the styling of the female characters – but, frankly, the female character may be the strongest character in the book. Maybe that is not our first impression of her – when, yes, the other main character spends some lines objectifying her at a resort. However, Margaret ends up as the superhero of the novel.
Frankly, the main character, Mark, starts off like he might be larger than life, but he really rapidly just becomes an everyman. He takes a secondary role to all of the other characters, becoming more or less the narrator of the story. The other characters that we meet are diverse and interesting. As we meet them, we notice their natural inclinations and frictions as we would with any group of people forced to interact and exist together in confinement. The novel has a lot of anthropology in it. Now, I do not think that Wyndham himself was an anthropologist – and I think we all remember what the milieu of anthropology was in the 1920s/1930s. So, I mean, some of it is that old 1800s WASP-centric stuff – but there is actually a surprising amount of decent argument and thought included for a debut science fiction novel. The main “thinker” is Gordon, but awesomely, Wyndham also gives a lot of room for the “opposite” side to speak in the form of one of the pygmy leaders named Garm. Gordon can be so very tedious when he goes on for pages about his theories. I think the thing that Wyndham does do very well is the presentation – all of these “conversations” that the characters have about anthropology are presented as theories and the interlocutors are not just sponges who agree with “the smart guy in the room.” Largely, they hear each other out, accept what they think is reasonable, but yet maintain their own perspectives and ideas. I do not mean to point out the negative – but this situation is immensely better than I see currently when people discuss literally anything. Usually, I just see screaming mania.
There is an African guy in the novel, Zickle. He is referred to as the Negro and the black. Truthfully, the characters who are around Zickle are not nice gentlemen. I mean, Americans who were in the Foreign Legion are not our brightest, most graceful of men. Overall, as a reader I felt Zickle was treated positively, but condescendingly. I was rooting for him, I wanted to have more side story about him. He had a good ending.
And then there is Bast………. at first I wanted to say it was too obvious and droll when Margaret named Bast. But then, I felt it was a correct touch for the novel. Now, I was really happy for the most part to have Bast in the novel – and then at the end, there is something that happens that is horrifyingly sad – but then there is a good thing. And finally, at the end of the novel the reader gets zero confirmation about the disposition of Bast. For me, this was a lot to handle. I do not want to give spoilers, but I do want to knock a half star off of the novel for Wyndham not giving the reader that direct confirmation.
So, this novel has a really good juxtaposition of anthropology and sociological elements with fugitive/action novel storyline. I was really impressed with this structure. I still cannot believe this is Wyndham’s first novel. Again, comparing this novel – its structure and plotting – to a lot of the novels of the last twenty years I have to say that this one is really superior. In terms of novel qua novel, this one is really good. As I consider a list of things about this novel, I do not have many complaints. Characters? solid. Plot? solid. Science fiction stuff? solid. Novel structure? solid. Action and suspense? solid. There are not a lot of weak points here whatsoever. Any complaints would be nitpicking, I think, and overall it was a very imaginative, immersive story that entertained me quite nicely. It was also a bit different than anything I have read (underground people, caves, the New Sea) and I really enjoyed that it was imaginative and unique.
One thing, I was unable to keep track of where the story takes place geographically. It may have been mentioned/explained and I stupidly just missed it. I wanted to say we started in Algeria and moved to, maybe, Egypt? Definitely North Africa, but I am not sure it was ever actually defined. I think. Its a small thing, but I have been wondering since I finished the novel. Lastly, though I think the descriptions and setting are executed very well, I did feel that a lack of claustrophobia was an odd thing. I would have expected to feel a bit more entombed than I did while marching around with Smith, Mark, Gordon, and Margaret. Anyway, four stars for a polished, completed novel.
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