August 02, 2016

In the Shadow of the Mosquito Constellation - Jennifer Ellis

Moonbird Press, May 18, 2014.

Four Stars

The world in this novel is very similar to our own, and the devastation it faces is something that we could easily see in the near future. There has been a worldwide economic collapse due to the advent of peak oil consumption, and as a result, all of our basic human systems – government, trade, transportation – have shut down. Natalie and her husband Richard were living in Vancouver at the time, but when things started to go downhill, they invested in some farmland outside the city. Richard, then the mayor of Vancouver, was against the move, but now, after “the peak”, the farm is the only enclave of survival that they are currently aware of.

Natalie, Richard and their two teenage sons moved to the farm shortly after gas stations closed down and transit stopped running. They were joined by their immediate families and a few close friends. As time passed, they took in more people, transients less fortunate than themselves. Everyone contributes to the farm, but it has still reached capacity of production, leading to the Farm Council’s decision not to allow any more “refugees” to join the farm. The Council, begun to keep order on the farm, is now weighed down by bureaucracy which is often manipulated to justify immoral actions. Difficult choices are made because the farm is surrounded by death, and their survival depends on a willingness to work together.

Communal living is difficult at the best of times, and Natalie also must struggle with her troubled marriage. Richard is manipulative and narcissistic – he controls the Farm Council and doesn’t believe that he needs to do the manual labour that makes the farm run. He makes impulsive decisions without consulting Natalie, and when she confronts him, he makes it seem as though she is the abuser. Even if she wanted to, Natalie cannot leave him because there is nowhere else to go – it’s reminiscent of the past when divorce rates were low because women were not permitted to survive on their own.

Natalie is pragmatic, able to sacrifice her former expansive, acquisitive life for one of subsistence on the farm. Others are not so willing to give up the power they had in the past – Richard especially wishes to return to Vancouver and try to restart the government there. Natalie will trade almost anything for the safety of her sons, but she still wishes for reciprocal, caring love – and she may have found it, with Richard’s twin brother Daniel. However, there is no possible life for them on the farm. When they travel together to search for antibiotics to stave off a virulent strain of the flu that has surrounded the farm, they realize there is a larger world out there, with possibilities for change.

None of the characters are particularly likeable, but they are all very real and flawed. I enjoyed the use of the farm enclosure as a device for distilling human behaviour – with all kinds of people trapped and forced to work together, some unsavoury beliefs and actions come quickly to the surface. Feelings are expressed that would usually be hidden in the “civilized” world, such as racism, sexism and classism. It is really a microcosm of current world politics, especially the unwillingness to let in refugees – but with their isolation policy, the farm members must confront the fact that they need new blood to repopulate the world and carry on. This novel asks the question of how humankind would move forward if we had to start over – and do we need to? Should we? Or perhaps there is another way to live in this world.

I received this novel from Moonbird Press and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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