Thirst | Benjamin Warner | 2016 (14 July) | Bloomsbury | 304p | Review copy | Buy the book
All Friday at work the one thought that kept Eddie Chapman going was the knowledge that soon he’d be home, sitting on his porch, a cold beer in his hand. This is California and this summer is hotter than ever. But driving home that afternoon an accident on the road meant that Eddie and thousands of others had a long, hot wait in their cars ahead of them. After several hours, Eddie has had enough and he abandons his car, running the miles back home. On the way he notices that the rivers, streams and soakaways that had water flowing through them this morning are now dry. Not even just dry, covered in ash. Eddie reaches home to find that his wife Laura must still be stuck in traffic herself. But searching around the house for her, Eddie finds that there is no power, no radio, no phone signal and no water in the taps. Outside the houses neighbours gather, seeking each other out for comfort in their worry.
Over the next few days, Eddie, Laura and their neighbours feel themselves abandoned and, as the bottled water runs out and a great thirst consumes them, they realise that they must help themselves before time runs out. The thirst, though, affects people in different ways and there comes a point when the thirst is no longer their sole enemy.
Thirst is a short novel that looks at what happens when a close group of neighbours – removed some distance from a city – loses everything that holds their community together. Over a period of just a few days, care for the weakest in the community turns into a devilish desperation to protect one’s own family. Eddie and Laura might hate the self-knowledge that this brings, but they’re no different from anyone else.
I’ve read a huge number of apocalyptic thrillers over the years and watched more than my fair share of disaster movies and there is little in Thirst that surprises as it treads down that familiar path to anarchy in the face of catastrophe. We all know that apocalypse doesn’t bring out the best in people and this novel confirms our expectations. Unfortunately, I didn’t particularly care for Eddie or Laura (especially Laura) even at the beginning and so I didn’t care a huge amount what happened to them or their unexceptional neighbours.
The focus is very much on character and so little time is spent on explanation for the absence of water and everything else. Also, because there is no radio (why?), no information is given about what is going on outside this corner of California. Is this a global apocalypse? Is it an apocalypse at all? But where are the armed forces and the police? Everything changes in an absolute instant. There is before and after but no during. And I couldn’t stop thinking: why doesn’t anyone head for a police station?
Thirst is a fast read – as mentioned, it’s very short – and, for me, it didn’t want to answer any of my questions. Its portrayal of mankind isn’t sympathetic and, although one expects gloom in an apocalyptic novel, here the gloom is relentless, even more so because the focus is on (in my eyes) an unlikeable, small-minded group of people. Flashbacks to the earlier life of Eddie and Laura only intensified that gloom because they made me like them even less. The premise of Thirst is so promising, the author’s descriptions of thirst so harrowing, but I really regretted that we weren’t given more about its causes and wider significance. As mentioned in a recent review, there are so many apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic thrillers around at the moment and the competition is intense. Unfortunately, Thirst was not for me.