Written by Helen Marshall. RRP: £8.99 388pp.
Out now from Titan Books.


Primarily known for her short stories and poetry Helen Marshall’s debut as a novelist is a teenage spin on the viral and the apocalyptic that permeates through so much genre fiction today. John Wyndham’s 1955 novel The Chrysalids is name-checked here, and its influence can be felt throughout Marshall’s book; the protagonist here, 17-year-old Sophie, shares her name with a major character undergoing similar circumstances from Wyndham’s novel which also shares such themes as mutation and transformation. The term “cosy catastrophe”, coined by Brian Aldiss, was often applied to Wyndham’s other works and can also be used in some measure for The Migration.


 The story that Marshall tells here, of a deadly virus affecting teenagers across the globe causing Sophie and her younger and afflicted sister to relocate to Oxford from Toronto, certainly shares those aspects of ordinary, middle-class characters bearing witness to cataclysmic events. Alongside this Marshall also adds in elements that seem to come straight from young adult fiction; young protagonist running up against authority, the tortured, mysterious hunk with a tragic past to list the main and most obvious ones. At times it seems as though Marshall has sprinkled in these tropes to comment on the state of young adult fiction as they more often than not come across as quite cliched and too obvious.


However, for the most part, The Migration does more right than wrong. Marshall paints a convincing portrait of civilisation starting to come apart at the seams; breakdowns with technology and communication showing how fragile the things we take for granted are. The virus that afflicts only the young, named JI2, is convincingly rendered and in its later stages provides a real narrative surprise containing shades of body horror. The parallels that are drawn to the Black Death, surely everyone’s favourite part of history lessons at school, are neatly highlighted and help to enforce the themes of the novel of change and disruption. The timely matter of ecological catastrophe alongside that of teenage rebellion also seems like real lightning captured in a bottle moment with the recent events of global high school strikes protesting the lack of action taken by the government into climate change.


Narrated by Sophie the book manages to convincingly capture the adolescent feelings of confusion, rage and despair at events outside of one’s control. Refreshingly, Sophie is not a rebel just for the sake of being a rebel. Marshall shows a keen sense of characterisation that comes across as layered; her relationship with her mother and aunt comes across as warm, yet there are moments where Sophie makes rash decisions at the expense of her own safety and well-being. In comparison, however, the other characters, particularly Brian, the potential love interest mentioned earlier, come across as quite thinly sketched.


There is real imagination on display here that almost manages to make up for these flaws that mark it out from the usual gamut of zombies, vampires and viruses causing world devastation that fill up the shelves of your local bookshop. Whether it will have the same lasting impact of Wyndham’s work remains to be seen, but The Migration is an intriguing debut that marks out Marshall’s future works as promising.


Iain MacLeod.







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 © 2000 - 2018