"The Migration" Book Review
Written by Tony Jones
Published by Random House Canada
Written by Helen Marshall
2019, 288 pages, Fiction
Released on 5th March 2019
End-of-the-world and post-apocalyptic novels are so common place these days, new additions need to be truly outstanding to haul themselves out of the crowded pack. Helen Marshall’s debut novel The Migration certainly ticks some of these boxes, using a virus which only affects children and teenagers in a meditative and thought-provoking study of the birth pains of an impending apocalypse.
Marshall recently completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Oxford University, studying literature written during the period of history in which the Black Death ravaged Europe, with some of her findings filtered into her novel via one of the principal scientist characters. The Migration features its own type of plague, or is it more of a metamorphosis? Whichever it is, symbolic or otherwise, the dark shadow of the original plague festers in the background of this enjoyable novel.
The Migration will not be to everybody’s taste as ultimately it asks more questions than it answers, which is slightly frustrating. However, this genre-bending tale is carried by an authentic and moving teenage voice that is struggling to come to terms with a world which is evolving dangerously fast. Some may find the slow pace and lack of action to be a turn-off, but this book sits comfortably at the literary end of the apocalyptic book shelves and should not be confused with other over-the-top action driven apocalyptic yarns. It is a very quiet book and has a pace which suits the story it is telling.
The narrator is a wonderful creation; seventeen-year-old Sophie, who has a little sister, Kira. Both girls and their mother have recently moved from Canada to live with their aunt Irene in Oxford, England. The early part of the novel convincingly deals with their upheaval, particularly that of Sophie. Kira is diagnosed with JI2 (Juvenile Idiopathic Immunodeficiency Syndrome), a mysterious autoimmune condition that has suddenly started to affect teens. This is a very clever part of the story; starting with a few isolated cases it begins to spread, and nobody knows how or why. Helen Marshall has gone the extra mile in creating a virus which is both convincing and scary because there are so many unknowns. Eventually teenagers afflicted have to wear bracelets, with some wearing them as a badge of pride, others as a mark of shame. However, before long a large number of young adults are dying from this syndrome, many of whom look like they committed suicide, with an unexplained attraction to water. As the death toll climbs, strange rumours start to circulate about post-mortem symptoms, and the bodies begin to twitch. An argument then starts: are the children really dead? Or have they become something else? Soon, parents are unsure whether to follow the government instructions to cremate their kids, just in case…
There is a lot to think about in this book. I did vaguely mention the undead, thankfully however, it’s not a zombie novel, even though it does head into some pretty wild directions. Its strength lies in how convincingly the everyday situations are dealt with; riots, curfews, extreme weather, school, guilt, first love and other very normal teenage stuff. As everything escalates, there is much to compare with the world of today, with climate change and the teenagers becoming increasingly disillusioned with the old-world order and genuinely wondering whether there is any point in continuing to attend school.
This apocalypse is not loud or bombastic and one could argue that The Migration is a climate change (cli-fi) novel and it has elements which reminds me of science fiction legend JG Ballard, in particular his prophetic climate change masterpiece The Drowned World, written in the early 1960s.
This is a fine example of a story set at the beginning of a potential apocalypse and although there might not be answers to every question, there is still a certain amount of hope. I’ve also noticed it has been name-checked in relation to Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, which really is utter nonsense. It is more in tune with other quiet and meditative apocalypses, such as Emily St. John Mande’s Station Eleven.
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