Review by Paul Kincaid
What would you do if someone, who had accurately predicted the dates of a series of natural disasters, told you the date of “the big one”?
What if that person were a psychotic teenager who had murdered her mother and whose predictions came as a side effect of Electro-Convulsive Therapy?
And what if you were psychically damaged yourself, confined to a wheelchair as a result of a road accident that killed your lover and your unborn baby?
The situation presented in Liz Jensen’s latest novel situates it squarely in classic thriller territory. But what she does with the novel elevates it far above the conventional, while sacrificing none of the convolutions and dramas we might expect of the form. And it manages to be, along the way, one of the finest novels of global warming I’ve encountered so far.
It’s a couple of years after the London Olympics of 2012, the Copenhagen climate talks have failed (a bold prediction for a novel published only just before the talks began) and climate change is beginning to have a noticeable effect. In southern England we’re in the middle of a summer that never seems to end, an unbroken heat wave, everyone of necessity wearing sunglasses whenever they venture outside. But no one really bothers about the weather, we’ve always got too many other things to think about.
For Gabrielle Fox, it is starting her new job as an art therapist at a secure psychiatric hospital for young people. She is, perhaps, going back to work too early after a devastating car crash about which she still feels guilt. Her sense of dislocation from other people, her wheelchair making her ugly and an outcast, is hardly good preparation for the sensitivity of her new job, but she needs to lose herself in something. And the person she is replacing at short notice seems to have had a breakdown of her own, so the institution can’t be too choosy. One of the things that is so impressive about Jensen’s writing is how she keeps you constantly aware of such background matters as the weather and the daily helplessness and inconvenience of being in a wheelchair without ever needing to stop the action and spell it all out. Without once being patronising, Jensen makes us feel that this is what it is like to be disabled, and she does it by making Gabrielle prickly, self-centred, foolish at times and not always a nice person to know.
Gabrielle’s main problem at the hospital is the teenage killer, Bethany Krall, who stabbed her mother to death with a screwdriver and who still shows neither remorse nor concern. The situation is not helped by the fact that her father is a famous charismatic preacher, a leader of the new Faith Wave that has gained massive prominence since the effects of climate change began to be widely felt, and he has not only publicly condemned her as being possessed by the devil, but has also refused to have any contact with his daughter. Bethany is crude, manipulative, and quick to identify weaknesses in those around her; she calls Gabrielle ‘Wheels’ and recognises the therapist’s sexual insecurities as a means of exerting control. Gabrielle and Bethany are both vividly drawn characters and the sparring and tensions between the two that are at the heart of the novel are visceral, absolutely convincing and totally enthralling from first page to last.
Bethany is addicted to ECT, which does indeed seem to have a therapeutic effect on her, but more tellingly the shocks seem to generate visions, detailed scenes of devastation that she calls Bethanyland. She records these scenes in a notebook, and as she works with Bethany, Gabrielle comes to realise that these describe, in extraordinary detail, the date and nature of natural disasters. Then, emerging from one session of ECT, Bethany announces a hurricane and a falling Christ in a few days time. On the appointed day, Gabrielle wakes to news of a rare southern hemisphere hurricane that has struck Rio de Janeiro and amid much devastation has toppled to iconic statue of Christ that stood above the city. Gabrielle realises that she must tell someone about Bethany’s predictions, but who will she tell and how will she be believed, after all, her predecessor’s breakdown was apparently associated with coming to believe Bethany.
At this point, Gabrielle rather conveniently meets hunky physicist Frazer Melville, who coincidentally falls in love with her. It has to be said that the on-again, off-again romance between Gabrielle and Frazer is a necessary part of the novel, providing insights into Gabrielle’s self-image and furnishing vital lubrication for the plot mechanics, but it is the least satisfying part of the book. This is largely because the wedge that inevitably comes between them, so adding an extra layer of tension during the most dramatic part of the plot, could have been resolved at any point and, when it is resolved, is done so quickly and easily that the whole thing feels like what it is, a plot contrivance, rather than a natural development in their relationship. But then, Frazer, like practically every other character we meet, is less solidly drawn than the commanding figures of Gabrielle and, particularly, Bethany.
To this point, Jensen’s writing has been prone to digressions which tell us an awful lot of background while slowly building our knowledge of the immediate situation. But now the digressions stop, without sacrificing its vivid sense of place and character the writing becomes more focussed, the pace of the plot steps up. It is an object lesson in how to marry the novel of character and the novel of plot, while fully satisfying the demands of both types of novel. There are more predictions, an earthquake in Istanbul, a volcano in Samoa, that furnish ever more reason to trust Bethany’s visions, especially as she is now predicting the big one, a line slicing into the sea bed that will bring about the post-apocalyptic devastation of Bethanyland. But while Frazer is trying, at first unsuccessfully, to interest other scientists in the threat, Bethany attacks another inmate and tries to harm herself. She is to be transferred to another institution where she will simply be drugged and abandoned, so Frazer and Gabrielle have to engineer her escape, becoming fugitives just as the threat becomes imminent. There is one startling and powerful scene when Gabrielle has to perform ad hoc ECT on Bethany in order to stimulate the vision they need for the last piece of the puzzle.
By now a very small group of scientists, including the object of Gabrielle’s jealousy, have come to believe that Frazer is not mad, and are working to identify the trigger for this final devastation and also to get a warning out to the public. But in the heated atmosphere of the time, the warning also feeds the religious revivalist fervor, including Bethany’s father who orchestrates a massive rally to welcome the rapture, when all true believers will be lifted up to heaven. The result is a tumultuous and not altogether happy ending that may at times seem fevered but also right for this complex, compelling and wonderful novel.
This review originally appeared on SF Site.