Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Things That Keep Us Here

Considering all the media time devoted during the last year to the possibility, if not probability, of H1N1 or bird flu pandemics, it is surprising that so few novels have yet been written about the societal breakdown that might accompany either event. Catastrophe of that magnitude offers fertile ground to those writing in several genres: horror, science fiction, romance, literary novel, etc. - so it is only a matter of time, I suspect, before such novels appear in large numbers. The Things That Keep Us Here, Carla Buckley’s debut novel, is one of those books. Buckley’s novel combines elements of more than one genre to show what might happen if the world were suddenly forced to deal with a highly contagious flu virus capable of killing half of the people it infects.

Peter, a veterinary science researcher, and Ann Brooks have been separated for a year. The two seem headed for divorce but, for now, Ann has gone back to work as an elementary school art teacher and she is helping her thirteen and eight-year-old daughters cope with the change in their lives. Part of Peter’s job is to monitor the bird activity on a nearby Ohio lake for any signs of illness in the thousands of ducks and geese making it their temporary home. When, early one morning, he finds a massive bird kill on the lake, Peter suspects that the ducks have been killed by avian flu and he can only hope that the virus has not mutated to a form capable of infecting human victims.

Almost before Peter can confirm his worst fears about the virus strain, the country finds itself bracing for an invasion of a flu virus even more deadly than the one that killed millions during World War I. Columbus, Ohio, shuts down its schools and tells its citizens to prepare to isolate themselves until the worst is over. The resulting mad scramble for food, water and medical supplies brings out the absolute worst in some but is only a mild preview of what is to come.

Peter, along with his exotically beautiful graduate student, a young Egyptian woman with no other place to go, moves in with Ann and the girls for the duration. Within days, the city loses power during a massive snow storm and all communication with the outside world is cut off. Grocery stores open only upon receipt of random deliveries and, when the city water supply is contaminated, running out of food and bottled water becomes a distinct possibility. On the one hand, sheer boredom becomes a problem for everyone inside the Brooks home. On the other, life boils down to a struggle to stay warm and to survive on a rapidly diminishing supply of food and water. Nothing else matters.

Buckley’s focus on what the Brooks family sees with its own eyes comes at the expense of the bigger picture. What happens in one Columbus neighborhood is interesting – and horrifying – but it is only one neighborhood. Rather than giving some hint as to what might be happening to the national and state governments, the military, and government emergency agencies, Buckley concentrates on things like family loyalty, individual courage, core values, guilt and forgiveness as she delves deeply into the Brooks family history. Despite the detailed back story and interesting conflicts provided, however, the main characters tend to fall surprisingly flat and their ultimate fates are not hard to predict. Some readers will be satisfied with the romance novel elements of the book; others will wish Buckley had explored more of what this kind of pandemic would mean to the country, and the world, as a whole. As it is, what Buckley describes about human nature under these circumstances is not far different from the behavior shown in New Orleans during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Rated at: 2.5

(review copy provided by publisher)

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