It was like something out of a horror film: it started with a few sniffles, then the coughing and terrifyingly high fevers came. Since only a few people had it, few took it seriously. It was only the flu, after all. Then the pandemic began in earnest, leaving hundreds of thousands of people around the world dead in its wake. By the time the second wave hit, all health care facilities were tapped out. Schools–prime hotbeds for infection–are shut down. Government infrastructure collapsed.
Set in the not-too-distant future, Sigrid Nunez’s Salvation City follows Cole Viking, a thirteen-year-old boy who watched both of his parents suffer horribly from the flu pandemic before succumbing to the illness himself. When he wakes up, he is an orphan with only a fuzzy recollection of what happened (a side effect from the prolonged high fevers he endured). He is plucked from a hellish group home and adopted by a Christian couple, Pastor Wyatt (PW) and Tracy. The two are earnest and kind-hearted but they could not be any more different from Cole’s parents, who were atheist, staunchly left-wing, Chicago-based intellectuals. PW and Tracy live in the rural, conservative, right-wing, born again Christian enclave of Salvation City. PW is easygoing and quickly earns Cole’s trust, but Cole is much more reticent to open up to Tracy, a flighty–though extremely nurturing–woman who insists on homeschooling Cole.
In a lot of ways, Salvation City is a coming of age story about a boy who was forced to grow up too quickly, but overall this is not a plot-driven book. Aside from the terrifying delirium-filled scenes when the pandemic strikes, time moves slowly for Cole. He misses his parents, but many of his memories are still fragmented. He starts to come out of his shell when he’s encouraged to develop his talent for drawing, but life in Salvation City always feels foreign to him because it’s the opposite of how he was raised. PW and Tracy are good natured and affectionate with each other; his parents were a bit high-strung and focused on work, and their marriage was in a constant state of discord. Though his memory is still fragmented, Cole knows that his parents–especially his mother–would have sneered at PW and Tracy, who devoutly believe in religious teachings and are willfully ignorant of many things. Yet he is also torn; as he slowly comes to trust his new adoptive parents, he sees that they’re well-meaning people trying to live the best way they know how.
Although I wish Nunez had taken this book a bit further (the ending seemed abrupt), I couldn’t help but admire her craft. Her writing style is beautiful and incredibly spare–in fact, she’s almost stingy with her descriptions–but this gives her all the more power to frighten her readers when the situation calls for it. What I liked most about the book was that it was believable. Bird flu, H1N1, SARS…for a while, the mention of these infections terrified a lot of people. It wasn’t much of a jump to imagine a flu strain spreading like wildfire and infecting thousands of people. Following the aftermath of the devastation of Haiti, this book takes on a timely subject.
People who love action and discernible plots probably won’t like this book. With few exceptions, it’s quiet and slow-paced. Cole meanders through life in a haze and tries to navigate his new life while still trying to honor the memory of his parents. Not much happens along the way. But those who enjoy the exposition of a story as much as the climax might enjoy this book. It’s very easy to get lost in Nunez’s world. If you don’t mind wandering a little aimlessly, it’s worth giving this book a shot.
Salvation City was published by Riverhead on September 16, 2010. The paperback edition will be published on September 6, 2011.