The Migration by Helen Marshall
I would like to thank Lydia from Titan for an advance copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review
Publisher – Titan
Price - £8.99 paperback
Published - Out now
‘When I was younger I didn’t know a thing about death. I thought it mean stillness, a body gone limp. A marionette with its strings cut. Death was like a long vacation – a going away.’
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 Toronto when her little sister, Kira is diagnosed. Their parent’s marriage falters under the strain, and Sophie’s mother takes the girls to Oxford, England, to live with her Aunt Irene. An Oxford University professor and historical epidemiologist obsessed with relics of the Black Death, Irene works with a centre that specialises 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.
Many Literary fiction critics utter that there is a perceived limitation in genre that the format limits the way any story develops. They then praise books by mainstream authors that just about manage to do something fairly routine as ‘transcending the genre’ (commence internal screaming). But I think with many genres there is always going to be a sense of readers recognising certain forms and thinking ‘ah yes, I now understand this story and what I’m going to get’. For me one of the best feelings is when an author takes these elements and instead gives us something new. The Migration by Helen Marshall I’m pleased to say led me down a path that initially seems very familiar and then took me into a direction I completely had not seen coming and, in the process, gave me a unique reading experience that makes me suspect this will be one of the best science fiction novels I’ll read this year.
Our narrator is Sophie a 17-year-old Canadian who has moved with her sister and mother to re-locate to Oxford to stay with her Aunt. The world feels on the brink of disaster. Extreme weather conditions have been worsening – warmer winters, constant superstorms and flooding are frequent worldwide experiences leading to power surges, abandoned towns and possibly new diseases. A terrifying new addition is a condition known as Juvenile Idiopathic Immunodeficiency Disorder (JI2) strikes the very young and teenagers. Not fully understood it can remove blood-clotting, disorientation, extreme tiredness and can lead to death. Sophie’s much younger sister Kira is diagnosed as a sufferer and by moving to the UK and the centre where Irene works there is a hope that some form of cure may be found. Unfortunately, Kira worsens and when walking with Sophie JI2 appears to trigger a terrible accident and she dies. But in social media there are many claiming that those with JI2 can rise from the dead in some form and broken with grief Sophie decides to steal Kira’s body and see if there is any chance her sister could still be alive. This plunges into Sophie a extremely unsettling period of her life where her family must adapt to tragedy, Sophie realises she has JI2, and the world is realising that this condition could completely re-shape the world.
This is very much going to be one of those reviews I’m going to be really careful about telling you dear reader too much else about the plot. What I will say is that this is NOT a book about the next zombie apocalypse. My initial impression was this was exactly where the story was leading me to with all the classic early signs of that kind of epidemic. Marshall kept my interest in these early scenes by giving me a fantastically described vision of not just our world falling apart due to ever worsening natural disasters but giving us a powerful relationship between Sophie and the younger Kira. Kira is charming but clearly weakening under her condition and the warmth of their love for one another is increasingly shadowed with Sophie’s fears as she sees news report of JI2 sufferers seemingly embrace dangerous life-threatening situations and place them at risk. Using her Aunt Irene’s research into the Black Death and in contrast the modern medical centre’s increasing attempts to manage and control the afflicted as a reader I felt I was in a uniquely personal story about Sophie trying to keep herself and her family together in a truly horrible time.
Its the second half of the book that I think makes this a standout novel. JI2 is not a zombie virus there is no horde of fleshing eating monsters that make us then watch people flee the country in camper vans. Marshall instead provides a much more powerful and bigger question that raises issues of finding hope in the worst situations and ultimately what it is to be human particularly when extinction is threatened. Sophie finds herself mixing with other teenagers with the JI2 condition and each is reacting to what looks like a death sentence in different ways from a desire to help others, anger and those who start to see themselves as different to the rest of the population. In many ways this is exactly how anyone can react to being diagnosed with a life-changing condition all of which makes Sophie start to decide what to do about her sister and using the research skills he has learnt from her aunt she begins to see that many assumptions about what is happening may be very very wrong and the reality is far stranger than anyone really imagined. Marshall’s explanation of JI2 is imaginative, clever and unique.
Marshall’s prose is gorgeous and there is a huge sense of building energy in her writing not simply the storms but that things in this decaying world are finally changing for good and bad. But one key line really made an impact on me and I felt a key to the novel. When challenging her Aunt why she keeps researching after all that has happened, she is told ‘Hope is the last – and best- form of resistance’. There is a huge theme of generational conflict. Parents and governments are trying to use their tried and traditional approaches to control a situation and this makes things worse with increased loss of life. Instead and I was really warmed by how Sophie, her mother Charlotte as well as Irene bonded and learnt to trust one another as adults who should be respected for their decisions; there is a theme that we are now at the point we need to move on from the tried and trusted but failing ways of the old world. The young start to let go of the world and that can be both terrifying and liberating. With a theme of climactic change and a disintegrating political situation it’s not too hard to see this as a commentary on the 21st century we are all currently suffering in.
With nods to writers such as Wyndham and Ballard in the book in many ways this references SF themes of past but this isn’t simply updating those stories for the current reading market - this novel is giving us something new. I wasn’t expecting the conclusion to end so much on a theme of hope and that there is a way through this dire time we are in. This novel is the third I’ve read this week with a core sibling relationship. All these books have made me think of how genres can each take a core story idea and spin unique takes that give readers a different perspective on our world. How genres keep afresh though is when they start to intermix genre hallmarks to give us something new. With The Migration I think Helen Marshall has produced a novel that many will be holding up as why science fiction is so important to us all. If you enjoy tales such as Arrival, Rosewater, Station Eleven or the Planetfall novels then prepare for your next favourite read!