Contemporary apocalyptic literature has a firm historical foundation to build on; from Biblical visions to 21st century fictions, writers have wrestled with the “what ifs” of plague, natural disaster, total war and technological failure. In recent years, as new and virulent strains of influenza have circled the globe, they have become fodder for not only fear and precaution but also imaginative speculation. Several notable storytellers --- Stephen King, Margaret Atwood and Jose Saramago, to name just a few --- have written about pandemics and their aftermaths, and debut novelist Carla Buckley joins their ranks with THE THINGS THAT KEEP US HERE. Buckley’s tense tale follows one family through an avian flu epidemic, which kills about 40 percent of the Earth’s population.
Not quite a year after separating, Ann and Peter Brooks find themselves confined to the same house, along with their two daughters and one of Peter’s colleagues. As a veterinarian turned biology researcher, Peter is one of the first to realize that a deadly strain of H5N1 is in the region. He is called out to investigate a rash of bird deaths, and even before the results are confirmed at the lab, he knows the enormity of the situation. H5N1 has already swept through Korea and other places around the globe, and now he has found it in his own city, which is soon quarantined.
Ann is sent home from work, and the girls’ schools are closed. She rushes to the store to stock up on essentials, and already, in the first days of the disaster, there is widespread panic as everyone fears running out of food, water and gasoline. Peter and Shazia, a beautiful Egyptian woman who is employed along with Peter at the university lab, show up at Ann’s when Shazia has no place else to go. Soon, the five of them are in survival mode, rationing food and water and trying at all costs to avoid contamination. Their precautions are warranted as neighbors begin to succumb to the flu, and the city, the nation and the world are plunged into chaos.
After a bit of an awkward start, Buckley gains momentum a couple of chapters in and really shines in describing the situation inside the house and around the city as Ann and Peter work to keep themselves and their wards alive. The tension between them due to the breakdown of their marriage adds to the complexity of the story, and Buckley throws in some interesting challenges along the way: they find themselves caring for a neighbor’s six-month-old baby, they must mediate the relationship between daughters Kate and Maddie, they live without heat or electricity through the winter, they adopt a starving dog, and sometimes they have to venture out into the ravaged city in search of food and supplies. Again and again, the family is tested.
Buckley manages to keep the story dramatic yet realistic. It is a frightening page-turner, examining ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. The pandemic seems unlikely but has enough basis in history and current flu epidemics to cause readers to pause (and maybe even stock up on some bottled water!). Buckley is in good company with other writers of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories, and while her novel is less literary than many classics of the genre, it is a confident and timely first outing with just the right blend of horror and realism.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 24, 2011