The Short Version: A massive flood covers the Earth under seven miles of water. The only (apparent) survivors are left in a children’s hospital that has – unbeknownst to them – been commissioned by an angel to serve as an ark. What begins as an effort just to survive – and to save the children, most of whom critically ill or deformed – turns into something else when Jemma discovers not only that’s she’s pregnant… but that she has a special healing spark inside of her, enabling her to heal others. Life in the hospital then turns into a sort-of utopia – but God or whoever’s plan isn’t finished and both the adults & children still have trials to face before they can hope to see land.
The Review: What a strange book. It vacillates, sometimes rather abruptly, between various tones and never quite coheres on the molecular level. On the outside, however, it mostly shapes up in the same unique way that its author has done: Adrian trained in pediatrics before going to Harvard Divinity School. So, you can probably guess where the two major themes come from.
I was impressed by how little “God” there was in the book, though. Yes, there are angels – the existence of which I don’t entirely understand (and perhaps am meant not to) but they never really go into who sent them or why… and no one really questions it, either. There’s even a move towards unitarianism amongst the survivors – they don’t seem to specifically worship in the way Christians or Jews or Muslims do in the present. But the parallels are unmistakable: this is the ark, there was a huge flood… There is some thought given to “where are the animals?” but that fades pretty quickly in light of the daily grind of the hospital. And what a grind it is. For all of the frightening excitement of the beginning of the novel – as the storm rushes in, then the survivors discovering their surroundings, exploring the ‘new world’, etc – it sure slows down around page 150 or so. Deadly slow. You can say that this was Adrian’s point – to illuminate the monotony of constant rounds, the way everything just sort of flattens when you block out the big picture and focus on the little tasks just so you can keep surviving. But it doesn’t make for an interesting book. It makes for a dull one – a stagnant one, like a pond breeding West Nile mosquitoes. The plot picks up the pace again when Jemma discovers her powers – the scene where she races around and heals every single child does drag on for some time but at least it’s interesting and there’s something happening. As opposed to most of what had come before.
Then, of course, the question of “what is a hospital if there’s no need for healing?” is given some thought and we see the survivors create a stable government, begin to resume ‘normal’ lives, etc. There’s some fun to be had here, seeing how people adapt to this massive ship they’re living on – with an angel that can literally create anything out of anything else. It’s rather sci-fi, actually – like travelling on a space ship across loooong distances with your onboard computer who can synthesize whatever you might need. Except this is the end of the world and these people are all that’s left of humanity. Which gets lost, at times, as these people settle into their lives. Sure, there’s excitement – when Ishmael (who I’m pretty sure was so blatantly and clearly an angel that I was dumbfounded as to how nobody else picked up on it but Pickie. Who I’ll come to in a moment) washes up, when they find the ghost ship (which was… definitely creepy as hell), even the wedding. But it becomes, in a testament to human endurance and perseverance, the mundane rather quickly. Humans are incredibly adaptable creatures and that point shines through quite clearly.
A side note, with potential spoilers: who/what the fuck is Pickie Beecher? He apparently had a part in Gob’s Grief as well – and he tells everyone he’s 137 years old. And, apparently, he’s a vegetarian vampire. Or something. I don’t entirely understand it, myself, and that frustrated me – it was this wonderful and exciting plot point that never really went anywhere. Hell, it didn’t even get any sort of resolution or development. It just floated off to the side, along with about seven thousand other questions.
This is where the book falls down, for me: the questions. Too much time spent on the humdrum, on the procedural-in-the-face-of-the-unbelievable, and not enough time – not nearly enough – on the wrap-up. I’m about to step into SPOILERS territory, so be fair warned. Okay? Okay.
This strange disease that infects everyone and turns them into ash – umm, “da fuck?” as my friends used to say. Similarly, what’s with this green fire. Why is Jemma special? Why the hell is her brother one of the angels, the recording angel? How did he know he was going to be leaving when he was a kid – did he know this was what was coming? What was up with Ishmael? Could the short chapters where the angel (or angels, I don’t even know) interjects have been any more obnoxious and annoying? (seriously, it was like the Angel in Angels in America only about ten times as annoying as she was to Prior)
I suppose leaving so many questions unanswered can be solved with the whole “divine essence is unknowable” cop-out – but that’s what it is, a cop-out. This book isn’t pitched as religious fiction – although it has religious elements – so you can’t expect a reader to swallow the “oh, can’t answer that, mysteries of God!” pill. Especially when the author spends so much time on the mundane and minute and frankly boring – once people started dying at the end, did we really have to see each and every character’s unique death? Could we not have wrapped that up a little faster and trimmed a good 50 pages off the back end? And while we’re at it, trim the monotony of the beginning down by about 100 pages. Then take 25 pages and sprinkle in a little – just a little – clarification of the mumbo-jumbo. That’d be great.
Rating: 3 out of 5. The book is evocative, no doubt. I felt hopeless at the end – despite the hope that arrives on literally the second-to-last page. It was just a depressing ride from about page 450 onward, despite the fun and happy times that had poked in through the middle of the book. That’s just not enough, though – to make me feel that hollowness. The hospital was a cool invention but even the coolest of inventions grows a little ho-hum after a while (just as it does for the residents) and so you need something else. Something cohesive, propulsive. The plot in this book moves like a 15 year old trying out driving for the first time. You get whiplash at times from the way it will ALL OF THE SUDDEN PICK UP THE PACE and then drop it to a crawl just as quickly. I think Adrian is a good writer and he’s clearly got a fantastic imagination – but I’d like to see him under the knife of a savvy editor who can help turn that imagination into something anyone outside of his head can more clearly follow.