Sarah Hall discusses the influence of Z for Zachariah

Sarah Hall, who won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize this week, on how the controversial, post-apocalyptic, 1970s children's book Z for Zachariah inspired her love of reading and her own futuristic novel

Aldous Huxley proposed that "a book about the future can interest us only if its prophecies look as though they might conceivably come true". For its speculations to be taken seriously, dystopian fiction must be part of a discussion of contemporary society, a projection of ongoing political failures perhaps, or the wringing of present jeopardy for future disaster.

Dystopian novels, such as Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, often tend to site their despotised or deformed civilisations in urban environments. Nightmares of a capital city overwhelmed by tsunami, war or plague transfix us, but catastrophe is first felt locally, and there are many homes outside the city. I was brought up in a remote, rural place, among formidably pragmatic and enduring women and I began writing my novel The Carhullan Army - the tale of one woman's escape from a repressive English police state to join a group of upland rebels - after the Cumbrian floods in January 2005. This was one of the worst episodes in my county's history, a history that includes many violent sackings, and the implications of an altered climate became no longer merely imaginable, but visible.

One novel in particular inspired me in writing Carhullan - Z For Zachariah by Robert O'Brien. Its setting is agricultural, and the human struggle is of a defiant female spirit. I first encountered this novel in my early teens, when I was not a great reader of fiction. I found reading a lonely and difficult undertaking. I was never quite convinced by the worlds portrayed, nor did I did connect with the characters. But this book resonated. Perhaps because it was a novel about being alone and in difficulty, or perhaps because its protagonist was only a little older than me.

The novel tells the story of 15-year-old Ann Burden, survivor of a nuclear war, left to fend for herself in a remote valley. I liked Ann. She was capable and resourceful. She knew how to take care of herself and she had become reconciled to her isolation. She was brave, braver than I imagined I would be in her situation.

Paradoxically, however, Ann's first declaration was one of fear - she could see smoke; a stranger was coming.

The intruder turns out to be a man in a radiation suit, a man who has been travelling through a devastated American landscape - not unlike that of Cormac McCarthy's The Road - looking for somewhere safe to live. His name is Loomis. After a bout of radiation sickness, during which Ann nurses him back to health, the two make arrangements to live and work together on her farm. Things deteriorate. The man treats Ann very badly. At 13, this was the first rape scene I had read. The effect was visceral. Suddenly, books became vital items.

I did not read Z again for 20 years. Though I remembered the work, I forgot it was children's fiction. When I talked of it, it was simply as a great novel. I could recall the outline - the arrival, the attack, Ann's startling final decision to leave. But much of the complexity had passed me by, as had its contemporary context. I'd heard the words "atomic", "Cuban missile" and "cold war", and while I knew they related to the destroyed environment of the book, I did not see past the fictionalidea to the historical reality. Z was written in 1973 and published two years later, posthumously, by O'Brien's wife and daughter.

There were clearly man-woman disputes in the story - that much I understood - but I could not fully grasp the stern examination of gender politics, or the biblical or Native American subtexts. I was also unaware of the turbulence Z had caused since publication. Its themes are, to this day, widely considered too adult for children, its realism too shocking and upsetting: the end of the world; the end of childhood; despotism; violence against women. At what age is this material suitable? Should schools stock it, parents endorse it?

What of its portent and potency had I not grasped? What had I simply intuited, all those years ago? I learnt about the author. His real name was Robert Conly. His early years were "difficult". He was Catholic. He won the Newbery Medal for Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. He had been a reporter on Capitol Hill, then senior assistant editor at National Geographic. While I know better than to read an author's life into his work, I was curious as to whether O'Brien's experiences and beliefs might, on rereading, be more discernible.

Foremost in my mind, though, was the prospect that Ann might not live up to my expectations. Revisiting much-loved childhood novels is never easy. I had left Ann heading out into the wilderness. She'd been heroic, dynamic, a role model of female self-sufficiency, choice and triumph. Turning to the text again, I expected to find the prose, both in tone and content, over simplistic perhaps, designed for a juvenile audience. But, written in the form of Ann's diary entries, the novel is beautifully spare; neither childish nor adult in style, but pragmatic and direct, like the personality of its narrator. It is a tense, intimate portrayal of a girl in desperate circ- umstances, a bright farmer's daughter, of whom maturity is suddenly required. Though not yet mature, Ann is not wholly innocent. Once her fear of invasion abates, she admits to excitement over the arrival of a man. She worries about her appearance, ponders whether to put on a dress before revealing herself to the stranger, who looks "poetic" and who she hopes will be "companionable". Her chief worry is not that she won't like him, but that he won't like her.

While Ann understands power struggles, realising during Loomis's sickness that she got stronger as he weakened, she underestimates his capacity for subterfuge and intimidation, and is oblivious to his sexual agenda. "Amazing," he remarks when she delivers his first breakfast tray. "This. Fresh eggs. Toast. Coffee. This valley. You, all by yourself. You are all by yourself?"

Loomis is quite plainly a villain: a murderer, a would-be rapist and a usurper of land. He is "the last man on earth", desperate to prevail and procreate. The circumstances are as mitigating as they might possibly be, but the message is clear: under no circumstances is such behaviour acceptable.

Loomis's introduction of conflict, dishonesty, industrialisation and dispossession to the fertile green valley echoes the greatest ills of American settlement. Ann nurses him through his first period of sickness, brings him food and later arranges a simple trade bargain. She is turned upon and driven out. It is, in essence, the story of the continent's first people.

The title derives from an alphabet book Ann used while learning to read. A is for Adam, etc. She visits the church in the valley occasionally to pray, and enjoys reading Ecclesiastes, the verses of which are particularly pertinent to her own situation. Her valley is the latter-day Eden. There is even a tree of life. When Loomis first arrives, Ann rediscovers it and picks the crab-apple blossom, girlishly imagining their wedding, and children. "There should be a ceremony first", about this she is emphatic, and here a clear note of religious propriety sounds. When things are at their worst, her dreams bestow messages about another, better place that she must find.

Until the last moment, Ann gives Loomis the benefit of the doubt, honouring their agreement, dividing all their food equally, even as he plots against her. Unknown to Loomis, Ann has a gun, a .22, and she is an excellent shot. At any point she could end her suffering, defensively, ridding herself of her tormentor. But her morality, her civility, is such that she cannot even shoot the dog Loomis uses to track her. At the end of the novel, Loomis attempts redemption. As Ann is leaving in the stolen radiation suit, he directs her west, where he has seen birds circling and there might be other life. Faith is present in the novel, but, it offers few practical solutions to Ann's problems, only hope.

O'Brien resists the temptation to proselytise. And he does not complete the biblical full circle. His characters' names belie their final roles. Loomis is sinister, a male representation of human demise, one who instigates disaster. Ann Burden is a girl sorely put upon. As the TLS neatly con-cluded in 1975, she is an Eve who refuses to begin the whole story over again.

This is eschatology for kids. And yet, in revisiting Z for Zachariah, I was struck that in this era of ecological catastrophe, of nuclear reinvigoration and worldwide inequality, its lessons, its discussions, are more urgent than ever for adults.

Twenty years ago, Ann's plight left me disturbed and outraged, while I admired her courage and resourcefulness. Finding her again, I was not disappointed. Though she is unable to kill a man, though preyed upon, hers are the superior survival instincts. She is a farmer, an adapter, a peacemaker. Her tenacity and integrity, her ability to be alone, finally defeat her aggressor. She walks off the pages into dead-land with optimism and independence. I would put this novel into the hands of every boy and girl.

· Sarah Hall's The Carhullan Army is published by Faber, price £14.99.


Sarah Hall

The GuardianTramp

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