It’s not clear if this overly long sentence, with its abbreviations, mixed metaphors and simplistic message, is intended as a parody of government-speak. It’s so different from the best of Shepard’s writing that I’m apt to think it’s a joke. If so, it’s a very labored one, and it made me miss the vivid and restrained prose that gives Aleq’s internal world such poignancy.
Although Shepard’s publisher says that he finished the novel before Covid-19 erupted, the book has clearly been revised in light of the past year’s events. The characters refer to the coronavirus pandemic as something from the recent past. That’s cold comfort, given the book’s bleak insistence on the cyclical inevitability of plague: “Our companions have been reliably causing cataclysmic epidemics not only for centuries, but for eons,” he writes. The notion that there will be a sequel to the current pandemic is not a heartening one.
What makes the book engaging and ultimately uplifting is the emotionally complex lives of its central characters. There’s the torment of Valerie, juggling family obligations with caring for doomed patients in her hospital. Shepard painfully evokes the heroism and strangeness of the doctor’s work: “Someone died and the relatives went off by themselves and collapsed, but you still had the rest of your shift to get through.” Another dynamic is the growing friendship between Jeannine and Danice, both isolated by their fixation on their work, as they risk death to unlock the secret of the pathogen. And at the emotional heart of the book is Aleq himself.
Shepard showed in “The Book of Aron” that he is particularly attuned to the voice and sensibility of a child caught up in life-severing events. Aleq’s loneliness, resourcefulness and powers of observation make him a distant spiritual relation of Aron Rozycki. Airlifted to the United States for observation, Aleq becomes the focus of the story as Jeannine and her ex-boyfriend Branislav, who works with troubled children, try to win his trust in order to get to the secret of the pathogen. Shepard’s ultimate sympathies lie with children, and his characters can be roughly divided into those who are responsive to the plight of young people and those who are indifferent to it. Jeannine is an investigator who is devoted to her task, but lacks an aptitude for caring. From her, the book demands an emotional shift: to see Aleq as a person rather than as merely the object of study. These sections of the book, inevitably filled with all kinds of loss, build up to its haunting climax.
For the foreseeable future, we remain in the era of hot takes about Covid-19 and our governments’ responses to it. And yet, somehow, working to a deeper rhythm, Shepard has managed to make art out of our crisis with a thought-provoking work of fiction that sustains our emotions, and also shames our policymakers.