The novel is in the post-apocalyptic genre and features a first person narrator, Riddley, and is written in an imagined English dialect with phonetic transliteration of a Kentish accent. Many modern words (especially technological and religious terms) have changed in meaning; many of the place names are folk etymologies, such as "Dog Et" for Dargate, and "Do It Over" for Dover. While the unfamiliar language is a projection of how historical linguistics might apply in the future, it also provides clues to the nature of life in Riddley's world (e.g., being "et" by wild dogs is a common fate), and creates suspense as the reader gradually becomes accustomed to the idiosyncratic narration, and comes to understand some of the references of which Riddley is unaware.
Religious philosophy and the supernatural are also central to the novel, elements which Hoban treats in an allusive, mystical way, drawing on elements of many religious traditions. Hoban also draws on the history of his adopted country, including Celtic mythology and Punch and Judy .