WARNING: This book contains strong themes of suicide and sexual violence.
Overview – 4/5 Stars
The Pharmacist tells the story of Wolfe, a pharmacist in a nuclear bunker. The story is intense and gripping having an excellent lead character in Wolfe. She is a complex individual torn by the morality of her position in the bunker. The storyline was an interesting take of the balance of power in the bunker, displaying well how one persons sanity can affect the rest of the population. The book delved into the topic of the apocalypse well exploring issues such as sexual harassment, social class, child birth and suicide within the bunker.
Attala’s bunker was very well thought through. Great detail was gone into explaining the facilities and living conditions and it raised some interesting points that made a prepping minded reader think. Some of the ideas from this book could help you plan your own bunker more efficiently.
Each citizen of the bunker was given a blanket, toothbrush, boiler suit, gym shoes and underwear and assigned a bed. This makes up almost the entirety of their personal possessions. These items are so precious and sought after that the citizens take them with them wherever they go to avoid them being stolen. At the start of the novel a man dies in the doctors surgery and Wolfe and Stirling steal his boiler suit for themselves.
The beds are four tiered bunk beds and are arranged in huge halls in a referenced grid. Each bed is just a metal frame with a piece of fabric stretched over it. Wolfe forms close connections to her bunk mates indicating they are a key part of life in the bunker.
There are certain items such as pens and calendars that Wolfe has access to which seem to be rarities for the rest of the population. When Levitt joins the pharmacy she is amazed to see the calendar. Pens are so valuable that Wolfe trades one for a meeting with the leader.
Upon waking everyone heads to the food hall – a hatch in the wall that hands each person three ration packs of pureed food. Wolfe rarely uses the so we don’t get much detail on how it is arranged. The ration packs consist of two savoury meals and one dessert. A lot of the citizens are malnourished and don’t eat the packs.
The bunker is also equipped with a recreation room which has a library of ‘carefully censored’ books and a ping pong table. It is mentioned that the ping pong ball was crushed long ago making it unplayable. This is perhaps the only thing the bunker planners didn’t think through. Some inhabitants, including Wolfe’s bunk mate Foer, use the travel section of the library to imagine walking on the surface again.
The bunker is equipped with a pharmacy and a doctors clinic for its medical needs . The pharmacy is where Wolfe and Levitt work, handing out prescriptions to the bunkers inhabitants. To stop pills being used for suicide each prescription must be taken in front of the pharmacist. The doctors functions like a normal doctors clinic in most ways. However, Due to limited resources they are required to make a call on if a patient is worth saving, as we will touch on later.
As it is the only semi-private place to go, it appears to be common for members of the opposite sex to go into one of the bathrooms together for some ‘alone time’. The bathroom doesn’t seem to ration water, soap or toothpaste too heavily which is odd given the extent to which everything else is rationed. Another interesting note is that it appears all the mirrors are made of plastic and distort your image. This is probably in an attempt to stop the glass being broken to use for suicides.
The whole bunker is mirrored identically on the other side. The two halves function as one having redundancy for each service but there is a strict taboo about visiting the services on the other side of the bunker to your own. The two sides are divided by a steel blast door that can be lowered in the event of a disease or fire breaking out on one side.
The door is there to maximise the chances of at least half the population exiting the bunker when the time comes. The blast door is tested weekly and, although not required, each inhabitant crosses over to their side to watch it shut. It is somewhat of a spectacle in the bunker due to how little entertainment there is.
Spoilers: The divide is further drawn to the readers attention by the Christmas tree decorating competition. This is the first time the two sides have been pitted against each other and ends in a brawl. It is an interesting commentary on the human need to be part of a group. This divide between the two sides ends up being a theme for the rest of the book.
Sex, Suicide & Social Class
The book heavily focused on these topics creating some great thought experiments for the reader. It highlighted how quickly women’s safety can be swept away in a situation where there is no real rule of law. The book also looked at suicide and suicide prevention in the bunker. The conditions in the bunker are horribly depressing leading to people wanting to give up. However, the bunker relies on these people for it to run and to help rebuild the new world.
Sexual assault is a strong theme from the start. The story kicks off in chapter two when Wolfe is alone in the dispensary. A man asks her to inspect a rash he has. She goes the inspection cubicle with him and pulls the curtain. He starts unbuttoning his suit and tells Wolfe its a pubic rash. Wolfe then tries to stop and get a chaperone but before she can he has grabbed her wrist saying ‘just touch it’. This interaction leads Wolfe to speak to the leader about getting a helper in the pharmacy so she is not alone.
During the encounter we hear that ‘many of the soldiers were already known for turning a blind eye’. This coupled with the reaction of the woman that walks in on it shows just how unsafe the women in the bunker are. The woman says ‘many of us will only come to you now’ indicating that they avoid the male pharmacist. Encounters like this are not uncommon in the bunker with rapes being mentioned throughout the book.
This raises a few questions for the prepper community. We can’t let people turn a blind eye in the aftermath. Just because there is no law stopping an act being committed doesn’t mean it isn’t morally wrong. You should consider this in your values for how you want the new world to start.
Sex & Contraception
Being held underground doesn’t reduce the human desire for intimacy. If anything it will increase it due to a need for stability and a lack of anything else to do. Boredom in a bunker could lead people to be more promiscuous. The inhabitants had no where to explore these desires privately so had to improvise. Wolfe and Stirling enjoy hanging out in the showers but that is all we hear about where it happens.
Reproduction is forbidden in the bunker. This makes contraception another interesting topic. Given how closely essentials like sanitary pads are rationed it is unlikely the designers made space for luxury goods like condoms. There is also no mention of the pill being used in the bunker. Instead the problem of contraception is solved by everywoman getting a contraceptive implant before entering. While this takes pregnancy almost off the table it doesn’t do much for STIs. This is a problem that could run rife in a bunker so I am surprised the designers didn’t think of it.
During the screening for if you were allowed in the bunker there was a check for fertility. It is not mentioned if this check was done for men as well but Wolfe had to forge her documents to get in. This indicates that the planners were thinking strategically about repopulation. Although it is not mentioned, one does wonder if there is a plan for arranged parenting when people exit. It cold be a worry that with so few people left inbreeding becomes an issue.
Spoilers: One of the main storyline points is Levitt’s baby Elanor. She is a miracle in the bunker as she managed to get past the contraceptive implant that Levitt had. Although reproduction is forbidden the baby doesn’t get any backlash from the authorities. This may be due to who her father is but it could also be that the higher ups see her as a source of hope.
Spoilers: The population holds Elanor and Levitt in a celebrity status, crowding round them to gaze at the miracle child. It can be seen how the first birth in the bunker signifies a new hope for the population and humanity going forward. Elanor is likely the first to be born since the bombs fell.
This is another large topic covered by the book. The first chapter begins with Wolfe witnessing the attempted suicide of Templeton by eating monopoly pieces. Wolfe’s inner monologue is also continually thinking of ways she can self harm. The sight of blood is a joy to her even as there is nothing in the bunker that you can cut yourself with. The bunker is stocked with antidepressants which seem to be one of the most prescribed drugs. Wolfe does comment that there is not enough for the whole population for all three years they are down there which points to the designers not thinking the suicide problem would be so bad.
Spoilers: At the end of the novel there is a second suicide. This one was different to the others we have seen as Canvan forces a guard to kill him. The hesitation of the guard is worth noting. Did he not want to shoot because he didn’t want to kill anyone? Was it because they needed as many people alive as possible when they resurfaced to repopulate? Or was it simply that each soldier really did only have one bullet?
There is one person in the bunker who doesn’t live in squalor. The leader. He never comes out of his ‘lair’ and has all the luxuries of modern civilisation. He uses his luxuries as a bribe to earn the loyalties of the common bunker dwellers.
Spoilers: A point is made when Wolfe gets to live in his lair with him that she was doing his bidding because of these bribes. At the start there was no blackmail incentive, just the thought of real food. As the tasks get harder she still complies all the way up until she has to take Levitt’s child. All of this complying is without any blackmail just the idea of more reward. When she gets to live in luxury again she can’t enjoy it because of her guilt and ends up leaving. It was a great portrayal of how far people will go just for a sense of normality.
Spoilers: After the death of the leader his replacement says he will not live in the ‘lair’. This is quite a statement as the ‘lair’ is luxury compared to the rest of the bunker but this also signifies the reunification of the bunker.
As we are not an Literature blog we will only touch on two aspects of how it is written.
The book is written from Wolfe’s perspective. This changes the readers perception of her. Wolfe is not a nice person if you look objectively at her actions and she is aware of this. However, hearing her thought process and watching through her eyes makes the reader feel sorry for her. The reader doesn’t come away thinking Wolfe is a bad person but if the book was from another perspective you probably would. In fact, Attala points this out in her ‘Reading Questions’ at the end asking ‘Do you feel sorry for Wolfe? If the novel was not from her point of view would you feel differently about her actions?’.
The book doesn’t use speech marks for any of the spoken dialogue in this. This creates an interesting effect of blending Wolfe’s thoughts and her speech together. At points the reader is unaware of weather Wolfe has actually said something or just thought it. It does also add some annoyance with large blocks of dialogue. You may have to re-read passages and logically look through at who said what.
This book gives an excellent insight into what life may look like in a bunker. It is well thought through in almost all aspects of bunker life. One creative liberty was taken in the length of the bunker stay. The radiation levels would be low enough to exit after 2-3 weeks in the real world. The storyline is gripping and unexpected and the characters are well developed and easy to get attached to. If you want to buy the book you can get it here.
If you want to survive a nuclear disaster but don’t have a bunker then check out our Nuclear Survival Kit.