I saw Phase Six in the “New Fiction” section of the library and was intrigued. But the first time, I wasn’t sure how badly I wanted to read a book about a pandemic, albeit mostly written before COVID-19, during an actual pandemic. But I changed my mind and went ahead and read it.
In a tiny settlement on the west coast of Greenland, 11-year-old Aleq and his best friend, frequent trespassers at a mining site exposed to mountains of long-buried and thawing permafrost, carry what they pick up back into their village, and from there Shepard’s harrowing and deeply moving story follows Aleq, one of the few survivors of the initial outbreak, through his identification and radical isolation as the likely index patient. While he shoulders both a crushing guilt for what he may have done and the hopes of a world looking for answers, we also meet two Epidemic Intelligence Service investigators dispatched from the CDC–Jeannine, an epidemiologist and daughter of Algerian immigrants, and Danice, an M.D. and lab wonk. As they attempt to head off the cataclysm, Jeannine–moving from the Greeland hospital overwhelmed with the first patients to a Level 4 high-security facility in the Rocky Mountains–does what she can to sustain Aleq. Both a chamber piece of multiple intimate perspectives and a more omniscient glimpse into the megastructures (political, cultural, and biological) that inform such a disaster, the novel reminds us of the crucial bonds that form in the midst of catastrophe, as a child and several hypereducated adults learn what it means to provide adequate support for those they love. In the process, they celebrate the precious worlds they might lose, and help to shape others that may survive.
It turned out to be both tender and frightening with an, at times, odd mix of science and relationships.
The pandemic aspect is all too realistic and unsettling in the era of COVID. The tender part deals with the relationships of those looking to solve the science behind the pandemic; particularly two CDC researchers. It was spare and episodic with little vignettes highlighting the challenges of maintaining relationships as a doctor, researcher, etc. with the added push-pull of the pandemic. I enjoyed it but wasn’t wowed by it.
In many ways the emotional heart of the story is about female relationships, despite the male author. I think what threw me a bit was that the book starts almost like a thriller (SPOILER ALERT: mysterious pathogen leading to the deaths of almost an entire village) and then switches to a focus on relationships and interior lives. Plus, for me, too much science talk, even if it made sense given the characters, gave it an odd feel too.
Interesting and well written but not quite my cup of tea. But if you are looking for a fictional account of those on the front lines, to use a cliche, of fighting a pandemic this is the book.