Reviews > Published on December 1st, 2014

Bookshots: 'No Mercy' by Eleanor Learmonth and Jenny Tabakoff

Bookshots: Pumping new life into the corpse of the book review


No Mercy – True Stories of Disaster, Survival and Brutality

Who wrote it?

When the chips are down, instead of...Doing the Right Thing, your average human will either kill and eat the person next to them or run around in circles shouting for their mother.

Eleanor Learmonth, teacher and freelance journalist and Jenny Tabakoff, senior journalist and author. Both live in Sydney, Australia

Plot in a Box:

An analysis of how we react in survival situations, leading to some interesting conclusions about what to do if you end up stranded with a bunch of disparate and hungry folks.

Invent a new title for this book:

Eating People is Mostly Wrong

Read this if you liked:

Ripping true life yarns along the lines of Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, Touching the Void by Joe Simpson, or Endurance by Alfred Lansing

Meet the book’s lead(s):

Survivors — of shipwrecks mostly, but also of mining disasters, plane crashes and polar expeditions gone horribly wrong — who have found themselves trapped in hostile environments with scarce resources.

Said lead(s) would be portrayed in a movie by:

Tom Hanks reprising his role in Castaway.

Setting: would you want to live there?

Are you kidding me?

What was your favorite sentence?

For any group driven to abandon centuries of social conditioning, starvation can open up a path deep, deep into the woods.

The Verdict:

We all like to play armchair survivalist from time to time, and I’m no stranger to the game of sitting in my comfy house imagining how if I happened to end up in the jungle with nothing but six boiled sweets and a bent spoon in my pocket I’d make it out alive, no problem (and probably with a tame monkey on my shoulder and the map to a fabulous secret kingdom clutched in my hand). We all have a touching faith in our own abilities to react well under pressure, to make the right decisions in difficult situations and, in times of crisis, to provide the calm and effective leadership that will save the day.

And, of course, we all are deluding ourselves about that.

Taking Lord of the Flies as a starting point, backed up with a real life study of what small boys do to each other when adults aren’t around, No Mercy takes a long, cold, hard look at how people really react when the boat goes down and they find themselves on a small raft with the sharks’ fins circling. Do they behave like Leo in Titanic and sacrifice themselves so that Kate may live? There’s a short answer to that question and it begins with an ‘N’. Drawing evidence from many survival situations, ranging in dates from the Numantian siege in 134 BC to the San Jose mine collapse in 2010, No Mercy demonstrates pretty effectively that, when the chips are down, instead of squaring our jaws and Doing the Right Thing, your average human will either kill and eat the person next to them or run around in circles shouting for their mother.

This is riveting stuff and all the better because Learmonth and Tabakoff use the findings of various social science studies to cast a light on what went wrong and what went right. There are lessons to be learned here, and not just about the importance of not eating bear liver and making sure someone keeps the matches in a dry place. In more or less identical situations, some people make it and some people don’t, and the reasons have more to do with group dynamics and communication than strength and fitness. At the end, the authors provide a list of rules you should follow if you want to avoid living like the boys in The Lord of the Flies: painted blue and hunting each other with sharp sticks. Hopefully you will never find yourself in a situation where you need to use them. But if you do, they might just save your life.

About the author

Cath Murphy is Review Editor at and cohost of the Unprintable podcast. Together with the fabulous Eve Harvey she also talks about slightly naughty stuff at the Domestic Hell blog and podcast.

Three words to describe Cath: mature, irresponsible, contradictory, unreliable...oh...that's four.

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