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.