“Son, the whole mess is buggered up and perfect just the way it is. We’re all buggered and perfect. You included.”
The “whole mess” being referred to above is the planet itself and everyone on it. And in Scott Fotheringham’s debut novel, this is certainly true, once we realize that someone has released a biological weapon of sorts into the world, and all plastics are being devoured by a genetically modified strain of bacteria.
As the implications of what that means to humans settle in, we realize that this is a novel about an impending apocalypse. But it’s a quiet, Canadian-style apocalypse. If such a thing could be said to specifically exist, this is dystopian CanLit at its finest, intimate yet epic; it’s a tough combination to pull off, but Fotheringham does it incredibly well.
The novel features a small number of very well-drawn characters with whom the reader immediately identifies, pulling us into the narrative, which switches from Nova Scotia to New York in both flashback and present-day scenes.
The protagonist has moved from New York to North Mountain, N.S., and is living off the land, completely off the grid. He plants his own food, digs a well on his small patch of property on the mountainside, eventually falls in love with a local woman who helps him build a cabin, and befriends an old man who turns out to be a relative. Most of the New York scenes are about a molecular-biologist lab worker who is hell-bent on ridding the world of the plastic that chokes our everyday lives.
Fotheringham reveals the characters’ motivations, needs and desires incrementally, which steadily builds the tension. As we learn more about each character, and as each flashback scene brings the reader closer to what’s actually happening, we’re drawn in deeper and the pages turn faster and faster.
I have a minor quibble: At times, the in-depth descriptions of living off the land – the vegetable-planting, cabin-building, well-digging etc. – made me want to skim ahead to get back to the plot and character development. However, similarly in-depth sections on biology and genetic engineering were endlessly fascinating. Fotheringham holds a PhD in molecular biology and genetics from Cornell University, and it shows. But these sections do not come across as info-dumps; they’re written engagingly and seem very plausible, and are therefore much more frightening.
There were also some very unnerving scenes in which the protagonist imagines the ghost of his father tucking him into bed and speaking to him from the shadows. This kind of creepiness sneaks up on the reader and delivers quite a chill.
The ending of the novel, when the reader finally puts the pieces together and fully understands what’s going on, is utterly shocking. This is CanLit in every respect, but it is also speculative literature, genre fiction that deals incredibly well with matters of the heart. At its core, it’s about relationships, those of fathers, sons, daughters and friends, but mostly our relationship to the world around us. A finer melding of CanLit and genre fiction would be hard to find.
Subtle, heartbreaking, chilling, fascinating and confidently written, Fotheringham’s debut novel is a success on every level.
Brett Alexander Savory is a writer, editor and publisher, the author of In and Down , and co-publisher of ChiZine Publications.