Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack
The Things That Keep Us Here is one of those books of which people sometimes say, “Oh no, it’s not science fiction. It’s just a novel that is related to science that might happen…” If that increases the audience for this particular novel, that’s a good thing. Buckley’s debut novel is a terrifying, realistic, human depiction of the advent of an avian flu pandemic.
There was a lot of kerfuffle about a possible pandemic a few years ago, but once it appeared that avian flu wasn’t about to cross into the human population to any great extent, most people forgot about it. But scientists tell us that we’re overdue for a pandemic – it’s more a case of when it will happen than if it will. And in that light, Buckley’s novel should scare the pants off most readers. It’s possible, it’s credible, and it made me want to board up every window in my house.
Ann Brooks has had a tough year. Her husband left her, and she and her daughters have been struggling to adapt to his absence. There was no dramatic reason for Peter’s departure; he just decided after a long period of unhappiness that something had to change. So Ann became a single mother, and went back to work, and her kids saw less of their father. Ann is completely taken by surprise when avian flu strikes America. Sure, she knew it had struck humans overseas and that some countries were very dangerous. But America?
Things fall apart faster than Ann could have imagined. Friends and neighbours are suddenly wary, angry, terrified – and refusing all contact. Food supplies are short, as are medical supplies and indeed medical help. Basic services – garbage collection, water, electricity – fail with startling rapidity. There is little news, no help, and it seems everyone is out only for themselves. Peter returns to help Ann and the girls briefly, and he and one of his graduate students, Shazia, find themselves trapped with his family. This small, tight unit lives in terror of the invisible enemy – the flu. And soon they also live in terror of a more visible enemy – former friends and neighbours who are also increasingly desperate.
You’ll find it very hard to put this novel down, because it’s so very easy to imagine yourself in the position Ann and her family find themselves in. They’re desperate to survive, but survival may mean making choices they would have found unthinkable only weeks earlier. Decent people may not be the ones who survive a disaster of these proportions. You’ll be utterly compelled by their dilemmas – they are, very credibly, the sort of choices you might have to make. Would you help your best friend if it might mean the death of your children? How quickly do you stop being polite and considerate when others are taking advantage of the situation? How long do you wait for the government to help? What do you do when you have no access to any news so you don’t know what’s happening?
The Things That Keep Us Here is enormously powerful. The science is accurate and explained in very layman-friendly terms. But what really makes this work is that Ann and her family are “ordinary” people – no one important, and no one with special problems or abilities, so their experiences are the sort of experiences most readers would encounter in the same situation. And it’s terrifying. You can see it happening.
The plot of the novel is relatively straightforward; it’s essentially the question of whether Ann and her family can survive both the pandemic and the state that society falls into when it strikes. However, this simple plot is rendered compelling by the empathetic characters. Neither Ann or Peter is presented as particularly right or wrong in their marriage breakdown. They have reacted differently to a tragedy, and over the years they’ve grown apart. It happens. Both have their faults, both have their strengths. Buckley presents both in such a way that you can sympathise with them both and understand both points of view, not only in the early pages, but throughout the novel.
This is an adult novel, and as a result the viewpoints of Ann and Peter’s children, Kate and Maddie, are not drawn out as strongly. They’re still easy to understand – in part because we’ve all been children, and in part because Ann spends a great deal of her time concerned about their feelings, reactions and experiences. Through her filter we see the impact on them, and understand how deeply distressing it is for a parent to see her children in this situation. Because isolation is one of the challenges the family faces, few other characters are drawn out strongly, largely because the family has little contact with others.
This is not an entirely depressing novel – although it should scare you, it’s also got a strong strand of optimism running through it. I suspect that Buckley ultimately believes the best of people – at any rate, that’s the impression I had when I finished the novel. The Things That Keep Us Here is a fantastic novel – it’s engrossing and memorable, and it’ll challenge some of your beliefs and values. Given that it straddles genre lines, and could easily be read as science fiction, as a thriller, or as modern fiction, it should be appreciated by a very wide audience.