(2014) Sarah Lotz, Hodder & Stoughton, £14.99, hrdbk, 472pp, ISBN 978-1-444-77036-0
On Black Thursday January 12, 2012, Four passenger planes around the world crash. There are only three child survivors. Bobby Small from America, Hiro Yanagida from Japan and Jessica Craddock from Britain. The primary body of the narrative text is made of extracts from a non-fiction book, Black Thursday by Elspeth Martins. The book details the crashes and the investigation. Then the story moves on to the lives of the children after the crash. An answer-phone message comes to light mentioning a boy and dead people, by a dying victim of one of the crashes. Things start happening in lives of the people looking after the children, which might be supernatural. A theory starts to circulate that the survival of the children is a sign of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse.
The choice of an epistolary novel or what is now the format of one, with interview transcripts and records and web chats, does enable the author, Sarah Lotz to go into being able doing a story in different countries without having to result to contrivances. The opening parts covering the crashes and the impacts are the strongest of the book. Lotz handles the different voices and viewpoints very well. There are a lot of little details that help establish the different settings.
However as the story begins to progress, the way that the narrative is handling the different stories starts to have problems. It feels that the three children are all from different narratives. The best one is dealing with the fears of Jess' uncle which is the darkest one. Hiro's story involves the robotic communication devices that his father is working on. Bobby's presence begins to help his grandfather who is suffering with Alzheimer's disease. All of these are good stories, but they start feeling disconnected. It is as if they start to push away from the main narrative in the form of a horror story like Shrine by James Herbert or a near future Japan set commentary on social distance.
There is also the theme of the belief in the Apocalypse or Rapture in the United States, with the status of preachers and business of this among fundamentalist Christians. This is another good relevant strand to the story. However after a while, it suffers from the sense that this is part of another novel. A Chuck Palahniuk style satire on the whole Rapture business.
Then the epistolary novel format means that last act involves a lot of things having happened off stage. The problem with that is we are left with the sense that this would have been better to have been directly included in the narrative. Then a sense of ambiguity that has been building starts to collapse so I wasn’t sure if the author knew what was intended either.
This novel does at least avoid moving into the familiar territory of standard evil children for most of its length. It is very well handled and Lotz is good at establishing characters and maintaining their voices. The difficulty I had with the novel, was that it did not feel as if all the story strands were integrated properly. The format for the narrative of a non-fiction book covering the event does work in giving a format that can move from country to country. It is just that the plot feels as if it because several ideas forcibly pushed together. Maybe if just one or two children had survived, the narrative would be more focused. There are good ideas in this novel, but they are lumped together like a ball of clay instead of being allowed to breath at their own length.
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