Phase Six by Jim Shepard
Over Christmas I re-read Miss Smila’s Feeling for Snow as the leading title for my Nordic FINDS Project.
*SLIGHT SMILA SPOILER ALERT* During the climax of the novel up in the Arctic, it is revealed that a deadly parasitic worm was thawed by events, causing the deaths that earlier set the wheels of the novel’s plot in motion. When I first read the book, I was very skeptical of this convenient parasite – and remained so during my re-read, but now I’m not so sure… *END OF SPOILER ALERT*
Then I was reminded of Sarah Moss’s first novel, Cold Earth, which has an opposite plot – in which a group of archaeologists get stranded in Greenland as a pandemic affects the rest of the world!
These two books bring me to Phase Six by Jim Shepard, which takes its title from the WHO definition of the pandemic phase of an outbreak.
You might have expected that I’d be all over COVID-lit, given my love of dystopian medical thrillers, but somehow, Jim Shepard’s novel published last year is the first one I’ve read. What is particularly surprising is that he wrote it before COVID appeared, although it is mentioned in the edit, thus setting this novel in the post-COVID near future, featuring the next pandemic.
There is a real concern that underneath the ice are a host of pathogens biding their time, waiting for the opportunity provided by climate change to emerge. In Phase Six, rare earth metal mining uncovers one such bug in the thawing permafrost in a small Greenland settlement which two eleven-year-old boys, Aleq and Malik, trespassing on the site unwittingly pick up and transmit to their community. Had no-one had to leave the village, its onward transmission might have stopped, but the mine-workers transported out taking it with them. Too late!
COUNTERTOPS AND PUMP BOTTLES AND DOOR HANDLES
And credit cards and credit card readers and escalator railings and elevator buttons and phones and pens and water bottles and zippers and wineglasses and coffee cups. Yusef Zaki’s nephew was getting married in Iceland and he wanted to be there and he’d convinced his girlfriend from Marseille to come along as well, and he stopped by Global Grooming out of boredom. Three American boys, Kenny Lee, Aaron Friedman and Ben Stahl, heading home for spring break, considered upgrading their headphones before reminding themselves that there were no bargains at airports. A Chinese-Canadian family on their way to visit their son on his year abroad passed Jussi coughing and the father scolded him in Mandarin to cover his mouth. Five Scottish girls commandeered the miners’ table at Mathus and one cleared away the unbussed trays and dishes before eating her carrots and hummus with her hands. A Swiss couple with a baby took the table after that. Two Austrian lawyers whose connecting flights had been delayed used the men’s-room stalls after Christian and Willem. Anything the minders touched any number of people touched after them, and anything those people touched was available to any number of hands after that.
Aleq is surrounded by people getting ill. Malik first, but then their families. The community nurse, Miss Paarma, has turned her house into a hospital and is keeping records, but she can’t cope. People start dying. Malik and his family are all dead. Aleq’s grandparents have it, he’s sure he’ll get it. There are fewer and fewer people left alive in the settlement. By the time Aleq hears the helicopters, he is the only one left.
Here, Shepard changes point of view, and we join Jeannine and Danice who work for the US Center for Disease Control (CDC). They are picked as epidemiologist and ‘lab wonk’ on a team going up to Greenland to investigate the outbreak. Jeannine is suffering from a break-up – she still loves Bratislav, Danice is not good at making friends and has been unlucky in love. The two women gradually find themselves kindred spirits and develop a close friendship as the novel progresses, even when their work takes Jeannine to Colorado with Aleq in an isolation tent, leaving Danice in situ.
There’s a lot of science in this novel, but Shepard is brilliant at paring it down to keep the reader’s attention primarily on the principal characters. Having been through COVID, many of us are more conversant in respiratory illness, isolation methods, intensive care and so on. Shepard doesn’t need to blind us with science, at least until the mechanisms of this particular pathogen start to become clearer.
We concentrate on Jeannine as Aleq’s primary carer – they have to communicate through an interpreter, which makes it difficult, and Aleq becomes very shut down as he realises that he may be the cause of all the infection as patient zero and seemingly a carrier. She needs to get through to him, and brings in Bratislav, a psychologist, while secretly hoping that their professional relationship may spark the personal again.
Periodically, Shepard gives us other points of view like that of Val, an ICU doctor in a hospital that’s overwhelmed and we are reminded of the worst COVID days when hospitals just couldn’t cope with the volume of ill patients, the lack of treatments, no PPE and so on. The implied breakdown in social order can be read between the lines, unlike in the film Contagion, but in this novel, we’re inside the pandemic and Shepard never leaves sight of the human story there. Jeannine has to deal with her own family, her sister and mother, her new friend in Danice, as well as increasing numbers of ailing colleagues – the first being the young doctor who rugby tackled Aleq when he tried to run from them in Greenland and whose mask slipped for just a few seconds.
This novel is sparely written with each chapter comprising many vignettes ranging from a paragraph to a few pages. I can’t of course tell you how it works out, but I was totally involved from the first pages. I loved the way he kept the main story small within the global setting, but those flashes of what’s going on outside beyond the main character’s stories leave us with the undeniable truth that we ignore the possible effects of climate change and the pathogens it may release at our peril.
Having discovered Jim Shepard, I now want to read more by him. This novel is highly recommended – and don’t you love that rather meaningful cover with the baking sun over an arctic village?
Source: Own copy. Riverrun hardback, now in paperback, 256 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.