When the apocalypse arrives in David Williams’ debut novel, it is beautiful.
“The angels came and filled the heavens,” writes Jacob, the Amish farmer whose late-night diaries narrate the collapse of modern civilization. He’s describing the solar storm that renders modern technology useless in “When the English Fall,” a quiet, brilliant little novel begging for a Netflix adaptation.
As in M. Night Shyamalan’s “Signs,” our perspective of this world-changing event is limited to a single family in rural Pennsylvania. Jacob’s daughter Sadie has been warning their Amish community about the end of the world for weeks, because she’s seen it happen during her violent seizures. Beyond their crops, Sadie’s visions are one of the community’s chief concerns before the solar storm hits. The bishop even warns Jacob, “This seems the Devil’s work.”
But then one night in early autumn, Sadie’s prediction comes true. Jacob’s family is dazzled by the auroras at first, “dancing wild sheets cast across the skies, beautiful purples and blues and pinks.” But then darkened planes crash, fires burn on the horizon, and Sadie has a new forecast: “It’s going to be so hard.”
I never realized I wanted a postapocalyptic Amish novel, but the premise is so perfect I can’t believe that it’s never been done before — or that someone did it so well on the first try. Through his diaries, Jacob asks a lot of interesting questions about technology, family and faith — which makes sense given that author David Williams is a Presbyterian preacher who’s written for Wired magazine.
“How can you even know what it is that you have?” a fellow farmer asks Jacob when discussing the devices that make business possible in the outside world. “How can you even know what belongs to who?”
The titular “English” is us — the non-Amish outsiders who would be considerably more screwed if an event like the solar storm of 1859 ever happened again. In the book, reports from the nearest town confirm that everything has stopped working: phones, cars, trains, the electric grid.
For Jacob’s family, that doesn’t change much. They use a generator only to occasionally power a washing machine. But as readers of “The Road” and watchers of “The Walking Dead” might expect, nowhere stays safe forever when hungry people get desperate.
It’s a gorgeous, moving book that’s creepier than you might expect. Williams’ use of tension, suspense and compression is masterful, calling to mind the distilled prose of Ron Rash. In the past decade, pop culture may have become oversaturated with postapocalyptic stories, but this one is fresh, unique and unforgettable.
Adam Morgan is the editor in chief of the Chicago Review of Books. He writes about books, culture and Chicago in the Guardian, Literary Hub, Electric Literature, Chicago magazine and elsewhere.
When the English Fall
By: David Williams.
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 242 pages, $24.95.