Jean, 39, lover of sci-fi, horror and fantasy, reader of comic books, conqueror of genre fiction.
A completely new and unique take on the apocalypse, Liz Jensen takes a synopsis that could be a typical horror story and spins it into an emotionally wrenching, beautiful and ultimately fulfilling tale of environmentalism and familial bonds. And while she never provides you with solid answers as to how, the why will hit you in the guts like a sucker punch.
Jensen reminds me of a sort of hybrid between Matt Haig and Gillian Flynn, with the former's touch of the supernaturally absurd, his humor and his heart, and the latter's complex relationships and personalities.
A story told in the first person is only as strong as its narrator, and in the form of Hesketh Lock, Jensen delivers. While I've seen people in other reviews say things like, "His Asperger's gives him a unique advantage in the situation," or, "his Asperger's gives him insights another might not have," what I actually liked about it was that it doesn't necessarily help, and as a matter of fact, by his own admission, it hinders him. He completely misses the bigger picture, until the end, when, as he says, hope becomes belief.
One of my fears was that his autism would give him "special powers," would somehow make him immune, or allow him to reach his sort-of stepson, instead of just showing him as a regular person; in this, the book is truly radical: replace him with another protagonist (albeit, one with a genius level intellect) and you could get the same results out of the story, if not the same sense of personality. (And I say autistic; Asperger's is named, once, as his diagnosis, but he suffers from involuntary body movement--violent restless leg syndrome, body/head banging--which is commonly not associated with Asperger's.) Oversexed, blunt but irreverent, insightful but with normal, understandable limitations, Hesketh feels incredibly real, and charms the reader from the get-go while defying the typical withdrawn or "childlike" stereotype of disabled/autistic characters in fiction (see: the Inspirationally Disadvantaged trope)
One of the things that impressed greatly was the ability to keep the story intimate while still including Hesketh pretty much at ground zero for the phenomena; there's a very fine, delicate balancing act happening here, that finds the perfect middle ground between, say, The Walking Dead, where the characters are completely in the dark and struggling through whatever life is throwing at them that day, and The stand, which takes up a thousand pages describing the larger world and how it's being affected. This book is relatively short, but never feels rushed, and while some readers have expressed frustration at the answers not being stated in black and white, it does provide them, it just lets you wonder and come to your own conclusions. It provides clues straight from the beginning, and part of the joy is beginning to piece them together yourself, as you see that bigger picture as it passes Hesketh by.
Ultimately, the story isn't exactly what it seems: it's not a tale of the apocalypse, but of the evasion there of. The bloodiness, and the terror, of the situations feel real, immediate, but secondary to what they mean to the story; Jensen writes them with a sort of clinical eye, the way that Hesketh himself views them, even as he struggles to comprehend the incomprehensible. Which seems to have let the gore hounds down a bit, but the uncommon identity that the book ekes out for itself--touching without being cloying or sentimental; horrific without being repugnant; personal without excusing or ignoring the larger implications--won me over completely. I'll definitely be catching up with Jensen's other work now.