The Migration by Helen Marshall
Titan Books, pb, £8.99
Reviewed by Sarah Deeming.
Weather around the world is worsening, storming and flooding have reduced landmass, forcing people to relocate, electricity and communication signals are patchy, more likely to fail than work, and a strange new immune disorder is affecting the young. Sophie Perella has lost everything. Her parents’ marriage has fallen apart, she’s must leave her home and school in Toronto and start college all over again in Oxford, England, and her little sister has the immune disorder.
At first the disorder is manageable, making the young tired and lisless. But as the storms increase, the young start to die and they don’t stay dead. They change into something not seen before. Something people don’t understand and this lack of understanding breeds fear and rumours.
Only Sophie’s aunt, Irene, seems to make any sense. An Oxford professor and historical epidemiologist, she believes the past holds the key for the future. She thinks humanity has seen something like this before and called it the Black Death.
Two things guaranteed to get me into a book; the dead not staying dead and the Black Death. There’s something about an incurable epidemic that fascinates me, and The Migration did not disappoint. The understated tone Marshall uses lends gravity and realism which packs more punch than any sensational fight scenes or gory details. Her use of doctor medical files to demonstrate the lengths the authorities will go to in order to fight the disorder is chilling in its dispassionate language and tone.
I have to mention what a remarkable character Sophie is. She is in her late teens, bordering adulthood but not quite there, and her reactions are realistic. She is both childish enough to blame her absent father for everything while mature enough to recognise when her mother is close to breaking point. I felt for Sophie every step of the way, but she never wallows in self-pity, she doesn’t suffer with teenage angst. She faces her problems with a maturity above her age but within keeping for her experiences. She is a strong female lead in a book dominated by women, something which is noteworthy in itself.
I could go on praising the way Marshall blends historical information into the story, or her consistency with her characters, keeping them believable and lovable. Instead, I will say this is a breath-taking debut novel, with issues of loss and crossing the space from childhood to adult. Heart-breaking from start to finish with bittersweet hope that stayed with me after I had finished.