So, I've given the book a little more thought since yesterday. It's actually haunting. Like Brokeback Mountain, which I kind of liked and thought pretty good, but which then haunted me in a way I didn't expect after I left the theatre. That's how this book was. The book itself was interesting, with moments of lyrical prose and vibrant, sensual evocation. But it was only after, thinking about the protagonist, and his struggle with the moral compromise that he enacted, and how that shaped his sense of himself. He wouldn't have survived if he hadn't done what he did. But in surviving, he was forced to watch his strong, deeply-adored wife fade away. He did good things after, but there's still the sense of the disquiet of his own conscience. There are a lot of interesting issues explored in the book--the question of what it's acceptable to do for one's children, but not for oneself alone, the question of the different kinds of bravery and cowardice, the question of where you draw the line on what you will or won't do to survive. And of course, what amount of good works after would justify morally-questionable actions undertaken in one's past.
But it was the image of his wife, starving and dying, that haunted me the most. The notion that there can be golden, happy years in which there's little or no inkling of doom, and then suddenly everything changes and life unravels into sadness, loss and desperation. I think, because I've seen this so often, I actually live, waiting for that axe to fall. I don't feel any particular privelege, except the sense of gratitude that so far, I have lived in a peaceful and relatively prosperous time (even with the financial crisis, we haven't yet been reduced to eating bark, grass and dirt to try to feel full. We've lost a lot, but we're still a long way from that and relatively speaking, we are still a prosperous nation and people for the most part). It puts things into perspective, but it also makes me wonder if and when the axe will fall. Of course, we'll never know that. But knowing how often in times past, peaceful, prosperous lives have been shattered by large-scale disaster leaves me in no doubt as to the presence of the axe--nor of the fact that if I manage to live my life without it falling, at the societal, not the personal level (since to live is to have axes falling in one's personal life. That's just the nature of life itself), it will just be sheer good luck for me.