Fiction Reviews

The Migration

(2019) Helen Marshall, Titan Books £8.99, pbk, 288pp, ISBN 978-1-789-09134-2


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 womanís dawning awareness of mortality and the power of the human heart to thrive in cataclysmic circumstances.

Okay, hands up, I confess to being a fan of the writing of Helen Marshall. I have her debut collection Hair Side, Flesh Side and I picked up her second collection Gifts for the One Who Comes After at a Fantasycon, or World Fantasy Convention, where I not only got a signed copy of the book, but a little toy cat which subsequently sadly disappeared. Those two collections demonstrate that she is one of the best speculative short story writers around with a unique voice, so for me, this is a much anticipated first novel.

The Migration is billed as being creepy and atmospheric, and evocative of Stephen King's classic Pet Sematary. So, letís deal with that Pet Sematary comparison out of the way first.  This is no Pet Sematary, and itís not meant to be either, so prospective buyers will be disappointed if thatís the reason they get The MigrationPet Sematary was an out and out horror novel, and one of Kingís best where he tackled something truly horrific to his mind Ė the death of his children, and what lengths he would go too if he could do something about it. This is something far more subtle, and creepy, and dare I say, better written in that Marshallís prose is lyrical, poetic, and dream-like, conveying perfectly the sense of confusion in Sophieís mind and those around her as they react to two world-changing events -impending storms and the floods they bring; and what is happening to young people around the world.

Marshall also has some advantages over King in her ability to write a believable young heroine not that King canít, but no matter how good a writer he is, Marshall has the advantage of having been a young woman, and can draw on her experiences of living in Canada and moving to England, something Sophie is forced to do as her mother moves Sophie and her sister, Kira to Oxford when Kira is diagnosed with Juvenile Idiopathic Immunodeficieny Syndrome or JI2 for short.

Marshall is also a bit of an expert in the Black Death, having a PhD in Medieval Studies and a postgraduate Fellowship from Oxford University where she investigated literature written during the time of the Black Death -handy knowledge to have, and also to inform the character of Sophieís Aunt Irene.

As I write this review (2019), Europe has just sweated through a heatwave, and perhaps one of many to come due to global warming, but it was clear that the transport infrastructure for rail and air travel couldnít cope with extreme temperatures.  Meanwhile in Australia, birds have been found to carry antibiotic resistant superbugs which potentially could leap between species, and possibly to humans. Is a scenario where climate and disease combine to change the world forever that farfetched? Who knows, but The Migration is one of those crossover novels of recent times - think of the writing of Claire North whose books straddle the worlds of literature and speculative writing to appeal to a wider audience and be nominated for major speculative fiction awards at the same time (Clarke, BSFA, Campbell, and winning a World Fantasy Award). This is more than YA (young adult), more than zombie apocalypse, more than horror, even though aspects of it are horrific and downright creepy, and while I canít predict the future, or the future of the planet, Iím pretty confident The Migration will be appearing on the shortlists for awards in 2020.

Ian Hunter


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