For the first 17 days of their ordeal, the Chilean miners trapped underground last year were forced to ration themselves to one sliver of tuna every 36 hours. Less than a month later, while still down the mine but after rescuers had secured them regular food supplies, they threatened to go on hunger strike.
Such surprises are vital in a book like Jonathan Franklin’s The 33 (Bantam Press, £14.99). When you already know the story’s conclusion, details are everything. The most gripping period is that between contact being made with the miners and their eventual ascent. Psychology rather than physics takes centre stage (it was strained relations with the psychologist that led to the strike threat), and we see human nature in the raw. The miners’ leader deliberately gives each man something to do, then curses the TV that is delivered to them (‘some of the guys watched it all day’). One man discovers a talent for poetry, another decides that ‘the last 20 years of my life have been a waste . . . When I come up, I am getting divorced.’
Some families use the delivery tunnel to supply drugs, leading to tension with those left out. There are rumours of sex dolls, but fewer than 33 are available, so none is sent. ‘Otherwise they would be fighting: who was seen with whose fiancée?’ But overall, it’s the rest of the world that goes crazy (autograph requests are sent — the workers oblige).
The publication of this book has taken almost less time than the rescue itself. It has been executed with much the same skill.