An infectious virus has wiped out much of the world’s population in Basically Frightened, isolating the main character in a perilous world, where he must survive until he can join up with other survivors boarded up in a shopping centre – where he’ll adopt the nickname Buckaroo Banzai.
The danger of reaching them is only trumped by what those survivors will face when Buck arrives because, well-written as he is, Vasily Pugh has created an utterly unlikeable main character. This is exemplified by Buck’s journal entries, which provide a pompous air to the character as he writes with the expectation of a large audience of future generations.
“I apologise if this indelicate way of describing what I see offends those who are reading this expecting beautiful adjectives and Madame Bovary allusions.”
Pugh writes him well, though, and little touches like having him leave IOUs for all the loot he takes put his confrontations with armed raiders in greater contrast.
“As long as I got my Cup-A-Soup from an abandoned supermarket, I was happy, content with a Minestrone reassurance.”
Buck is a huge film buff, hence his new name, and he drops references to TV shows and movies like confetti. There’s nothing wrong in this approach, but Buck has very British tastes which might alienate foreign readers who don’t understand who or what Byker Grove and Grange Hill are.
Even worse, Buck’s profession as a proofreader before the outbreak comes into stark contrast with the typos that permeate Pugh’s writing.
As he joins up with the survivors at the shopping centre, the story becomes less of a journal and more of a standard narrative, which helps tone down Buck’s awkward personality and focuses on the plot more.
“The door closes and I get the sweetest hint of perfume. It becomes a mild tonic in a room of astringent smells and clinical order.”
It takes a while for these positives to take effect, because his introduction to the shopping centre and all its inhabitants feels like a second start to the book.
Once that’s all been established, Basically Frightened begins to kick off. There’s plenty of tension in the group who have gone a little stir crazy, power struggles in the unspoken hierarchy become apparent and there’s the constant threat of external forces.
Everything ties together well and leads up to a grand ending, one that, dare I say it, sets things up beautifully for a sequel.