Naben Ruthnum Reviews Helen Marshall's The Migration

Helen Marshall.  The Migration.  Random House Canada. $24.95. 304 pp., ISBN: 9780735272620

Helen Marshall. The Migration. Random House Canada. $24.95. 304 pp., ISBN: 9780735272620

Will the apocalypse be subtle? Current reality, with its various tempests and climate fluctuations, suggests that yes, on many days in many places, it will be possible to ignore. As long as it’s slower than a zombie plague, we are apparently capable of ignoring the geological rapidity of the world’s decline.  Helen Marshall’s The Migration, a cross-genre novel that draws from horror, sci-fi, fantasy, and historical fiction, gives us this slow apocalypse in the weeks that it begins to inevitably accelerate, as the changing planet triggers a change in humanity that is beyond behavioural.

Marshall introduces the reader to this world of storms and rapidly rising waters in Toronto, in an old house on Dupont Street where 17-year-old narrator Sophie Perella lives with her parents and younger sister, Kira. Kira’s sick with JI2, a juvenile autoimmune disease that is weakening the bodies of afflicted children and teens, and even causing them to find delight in self-destructive thoughts. Marshall’s sci-fi talents are useful in the believable medical descriptions of JI2, which begin in earnest when the family (minus the father, a character whose near-total absence from the book isn’t quite adequately explained by his estrangement from Sophie’s mother) moves to England.

The strength of The Migration—its believable ramping-up of an apocalyptic scenario in a world just years away from our own—also causes some of the book’s slight disappointments. Promising threads, such as Sophie’s growing skills as a historical researcher under the tutelage of her Aunt Irene, her complex and sad relationship with her sister, and her settling into a new school are either broken off or vastly transmogrified by the relentless progress of the plot. Sophie’s relationship with her sister remains at the core of the story, but transforms in a manner that I can’t discuss without spoiling the unfurling story of Kira’s illness, which Marshall seeds in a comment Sophie’s aunt makes early on: “Disease shaped our development, not just at a superficial level, but our biology as well...”

Reaction to change is, of course, a definitive element of what makes stories stories. While there remains in the novel a sense that we are occasionally reading the ghosts of built-out subplots and byroads that vanished in the drafting process, Marshall is aware of what her plot’s considerable momentum does to her world and its characters. She allows this momentum to drive the shift from a novel of subtle horror into an increasingly fantastic story, one that eventually involves improbable flying machines and humanoid creatures that make perfect sense in the vacuum of the book. The medical explanations regarding JI2 (courtesy of one Dr. Varghese, who is adroitly deployed, save for an unfortunate passage of homeland reminiscence where she talks about missing “the smells of ginger and cumin, the taste of sweet milky tea on hot days” after her move to England—ginger, cumin and tea not exactly being alien elements in Indo kitchens in the UK) are both a source of believable horror and a compelling explanation of plot-advancing character actions: the disease reprograms the brain to delight in recklessness. Marshall’s reprogramming disease has commonalities with notions seen in early Cronenberg films or Garth Ennis’s Crossed, but hers is distinct, evocative, and quite beautiful. It’s a strong central accomplishment in a story that manages to be true to adolescent crushes and rebellion while also delineating a world that is not just falling apart: it’s in the process of becoming an entirely different world.

Naben Ruthnum is the author of Curry: Eating, Reading, and Race. As Nathan Ripley, his most recent thriller is Your Life Is Mine.

What We'll Be Reading: Editors' Picks, Spring 2019

Here are some titles from CanLit and beyond that our editors are especially excited to read this spring.

Recommended by Sally Cooper

Recommended by Sally Cooper


Knopf Canada, May 2019

"Reverend Willie Maxwell was a rural preacher accused of murdering five of his family members for insurance money in the 1970s. With the help of a savvy lawyer, he escaped justice for years until a relative shot him dead at the funeral of his last victim. Despite hundreds of witnesses, Maxwell's murderer was acquitted--thanks to the same attorney who had previously defended the Reverend.

Sitting in the audience during the vigilante's trial was Harper Lee, who had traveled from New York City to her native Alabama with the idea of writing her own In Cold Blood, the true-crime classic she had helped her friend Truman Capote research seventeen years earlier. Lee spent a year in town reporting, and many more years working on her own version of the case.

Now Casey Cep brings this story to life, from the shocking murders to the courtroom drama to the racial politics of the Deep South. At the same time, she offers a deeply moving portrait of one of the country's most beloved writers and her struggle with fame, success, and the mystery of artistic creativity."

Recommended by Jessica Rose

Recommended by Jessica Rose


UBC Press, March 2019

"Bridget Donnelly. Charlotte Reveille. Kate Slattery. Emily Boyle. Until now, these were nothing but names marked down in the admittance registers and punishment reports of Kingston Penitentiary, Canada’s most notorious prison. 

In this shocking and heartbreaking book, Ted McCoy tells these women’s stories of incarceration and resistance in poignant detail. Locked away from male prisoners in dark basement wards, these women experienced isolation and segregation, along with the worst elements of prison life – starvation, corporal punishment, sexual abuse, and neglect. Yet they met these challenges with resistance and resilience.

Although the four women served sentences at different times over a century, they shared experiences that illuminate how the most marginalized elements in society – the poor, the sick, and the disadvantaged – reckoned with poverty and crime and grappled with the constraints placed on them by shifting notions of punishment and reform.

The inhumanity suffered by these four women stands as profoundly disturbing evidence of the hidden costs of isolation, punishment, and mass incarceration.

This book will appeal to anyone interested in the history of crime and punishment or the history of women."

Recommended by Dana Hansen

Recommended by Dana Hansen


Book*hug Press, May 2019

"Before I Was a Critic I Was a Human Being is the debut collection of essays by Amy Fung. In it, Fung takes a closer examination at Canada’s mythologies of multiculturalism, settler colonialism, and identity through the lens of a national art critic.

Following the tangents of a foreign-born perspective and the complexities and complicities in participating in ongoing acts of colonial violence, the book as a whole takes the form of a very long land acknowledgement. Taken individually, each piece roots itself in the learning and unlearning process of a first generation settler immigrant as she unfurls each region’s sense of place and identity."

Recommended by Jen Rawlinson

Recommended by Jen Rawlinson



"Storms and flooding are worsening around the world, and a mysterious immune disorder has begun to afflict the young. Sophie Perella is about to begin her senior year of high school in Toronto when her little sister, Kira, is diagnosed. Their parents' marriage falters under the strain, and Sophie's mother takes the girls to Oxford, England, to live with their Aunt Irene. An Oxford University professor and historical epidemiologist obsessed with relics of the Black Death, Irene works with a Centre that specializes in treating people with the illness. She is a friend to Sophie, and offers a window into a strange and ancient history of human plague and recovery. Sophie just wants to understand what's happening now; but as mortality rates climb, and reports emerge of bodily tremors in the deceased, it becomes clear there is nothing normal about this condition--and that the dead aren't staying dead. When Kira succumbs, Sophie faces an unimaginable choice: let go of the sister she knows, or take action to embrace something terrifying and new.'

Tender and chilling, unsettling and hopeful, The Migration is a story of a young woman's dawning awareness of mortality and the power of the human heart to thrive in cataclysmic circumstances."

Recommended by Dana Hansen

Recommended by Dana Hansen



"In Disquieting, Cynthia Cruz tarries with others who have provided examples of how to “turn away,” or reject the ideologies of contemporary neoliberal culture. These essays inhabit connections between silence, refusal, anorexia, mental illness, and neoliberalism. Cruz also explores the experience of being working-class and poor in contemporary culture, and how those who are silenced often turn to forms of disquietude that value open-endedness, complexity, and difficulty.

Disquieting: Essays on Silence draws on philosophy, theory, art, film, and literature to offer alternative ways of being in this world and possibilities for building a new one."

Recommended by Krista Foss

Recommended by Krista Foss


Biblioasis, September 2018

"Eight months before he became a suicide bomber, Prin went to the zoo with his family.

Following a cancer diagnosis, forty-year old Prin vows to become a better man and a better Catholic. He’s going to spend more time with his kids and better time with his wife, care for his recently divorced and aging parents, and also expand his cutting-edge research into the symbolism of the seahorse in Canadian literature.

But when his historic college in downtown Toronto faces a shutdown and he meets with the condominium developers ready to take it over—including a foul-mouthed young Chinese entrepreneur and Wende, his sexy ex-girlfriend from graduate school—Prin hears the voice of God. Bewildered and divinely inspired, he goes to the Middle East, hoping to save both his college and his soul. Wende is coming, too.

The first book in a planned trilogy, Original Prin is an entertaining and essential novel about family life, faith, temptation, and fanaticism. It’s a timely story about timeless truths, told with wise insight and great humour, confirming Randy Boyagoda’s place as one of Canada’s funniest and most provocative writers."

Recommended by Jessica Rose and Jen Rawlinson

Recommended by Jessica Rose and Jen Rawlinson


Strange Light, May 2019

"An experimental fiction, I Become a Delight to My Enemies uses many different voices and forms to tell the stories of the women who live in an uncanny Town, uncovering their experiences of shame, fear, cruelty, and transcendence. Sara Peters combines poetry and short prose vignettes to create a singular, unflinching portrait of a Town in which the lives of girls and women are shaped by the brutality meted upon them and by their acts of defiance and yearning towards places of safety and belonging. Through lucid detail, sparkling imagery and illumination, Peters' individual characters and the collective of The Town leap vividly, fully formed off the page. A hybrid in form, I Become a Delight to My Enemies is an awe-inspiring example of the exquisite force of words to shock and to move, from a writer of exceptional talent and potential."

Recommended by Jessica Rose

Recommended by Jessica Rose


Astoria, House of Anansi, June 2019

"Kara Davis is a girl caught in the middle — of her Canadian nationality and her desire to be a “true” Jamaican, of her mother and grandmother’s rages and life lessons, of having to avoid being thought of as too “faas” or too “quiet” or too “bold” or too “soft.” Set in “Little Jamaica,” Toronto’s Eglinton West neighbourhood, Kara moves from girlhood to the threshold of adulthood, from elementary school to high school graduation, in these twelve interconnected stories. We see her on a visit to Jamaica, startled by the sight of a severed pig’s head in her great aunt’s freezer; in junior high, the victim of a devastating prank by her closest friends; and as a teenager in and out of her grandmother’s house, trying to cope with the ongoing battles between her unyielding grandparents.

A rich and unforgettable portrait of growing up between worlds, Frying Plantain shows how, in one charged moment, friendship and love can turn to enmity and hate, well-meaning protection can become control, and teasing play can turn to something much darker. In her brilliantly incisive debut, Zalika Reid-Benta artfully depicts the tensions between mothers and daughters, second-generation Canadians and first-generation cultural expectations, and Black identity and predominately white society."

Recommended by Dana Hansen

Recommended by Dana Hansen


Wolsak and Wynn, May 2019

"In an ambitious, yet intimate novel set in Taos, New Mexico, and Hamilton, Ontario, Sally Cooper explores unexpected motherhood, creativity, race, love and faith. With My Back to the World tells the stories of three women: Rudie, who is editing a documentary in Hamilton in 2010; historical artist Agnes Martin, who decides in 1974 after seven years’ exile in New Mexico to begin painting again; and Ellen, a black woman burying her husband in 1870 on an Ontario homestead. Each of these women is waiting for the arrival of an unexpected child and their interconnected stories explore how society’s, and our own, ideas of what it means to be a woman, a mother and an artist change over time. Evocative and introspective, With My Back to the World tells the complicated stories of how different women find faith in themselves in extraordinary circumstances."

Recommended by Jen Rawlinson

Recommended by Jen Rawlinson


House of Anansi, February 2019

"February in Newfoundland is the longest month of the year. 

Another blizzard is threatening to tear a strip off downtown St. John’s, while inside The Hazel restaurant a storm system of sex, betrayal, addiction, and hurt is breaking overhead. Iris, a young hostess from around the bay, is forced to pull a double despite resolving to avoid the charming chef and his wealthy restaurateur wife. Just tables over, Damian, a hungover and self-loathing server, is trying to navigate a potential punch-up with a pair of lit customers who remain oblivious to the rising temperature in the dining room. Meanwhile Olive, a young woman far from her northern home, watches it all unfurl from the fast and frozen street. Through rolling blackouts, we glimpse the truth behind the shroud of scathing lies and unrelenting abuse, and discover that resilience proves most enduring in the dead of this winter’s tale.

By turns biting, funny, poetic, and heartbreaking, Megan Gail Coles’ debut novel rips into the inner lives of a wicked cast of characters, building towards a climax that will shred perceptions and force a reckoning. This is blistering Newfoundland Gothic for the twenty-first century, a wholly original, bracing, and timely portrait of a place in the throes of enormous change, where two women confront the traumas of their past in an attempt to overcome the present and to pick up a future."