*I received a free ARC of this book via Authoright’s Clink Street Spring Reads Week 2018. The decision to review and my opinions are my own.*
Blurb: Retreating from an airborne virus with a uniquely unsettling symptom, property developer Jason escapes London for his country estate, where he is forced to negotiate a new way of living with an assortment of fellow survivors.
Far in the future, an isolated community of descendants continue to farm this same estate. Among their most treasured possessions are a few books, including a copy of Jane Eyre, from which they have constructed their hierarchies, rituals and beliefs. When 15-year-old Agnes begins to record the events of her life, she has no idea what consequences will follow. Locked away for her transgressions, she escapes to the urban ruins and a kind of freedom, but must decide where her future lies.
These two stories interweave, illuminating each other in unexpected ways and offering long vistas of loss, regeneration and wonder.
The Book of Air is a story of survival, the shaping of memory and the enduring impulse to find meaning in a turbulent world.
The Book of Air has the heavy feel of a post-apocalyptic dystopian novel, but there are no zombies as a result of this plague, just people trying to pick up the tatters of the entirety of human civilization and make something new from the remaining rags.
The story is told in two first-person accounts: one, the interior monologue of Jason in the immediate aftermath of the plague that has wiped out most of humanity; the other the written narrative of Agnes, a future descendant of the small community eventually established in Jason’s country residence.
Both tales mirror the book that they are so intimately bound with, Jane Eyre, by having a dramatically portentous atmosphere, with little actual dramatic action to show for it. There are lots of confrontations that peter into embarrassed normality, and the few injuries/deaths in the narrative are deliberately anticlimactic in presentation.
All of the intensity here is reserved for the interactions between humans and narratives: written and oral. The need for storytelling, and how we frame our lives into story-shapes and how the stories reshape us in return. This is, of course, overt in the ‘four books’ device, but is reflected and reinstated everywhere, in the texts Jason remembers and refers to in passing, the legends passed down to Agnes, the diary of Agnes herself, and the very text we are interacting with as readers.
I confess to not engaging emotionally with the characters here, despite feeling that I should. There was nothing inherently unlikable about Agnes and Jason and their companions, but their detached narrative tone set up an emotional distance from me as a reader. This is not actually a criticism, as I found plenty here to engage with intellectually, and have enjoyed revisiting the ideas and questions repeatedly in the days since finishing this story.
I did particularly like playing literary detective in spotting the book references, and deciphering the identities of the ‘four books’ before they were revealed. Likewise as a longtime fan of Jane Eyre I revelled in the smuggery of references to ‘Masons’ and ‘Reeds’ and ‘Red Rooms’, and chuckled knowingly at the ‘murk’ and the ‘Jane Writer’. I felt these references were entertaining, but also liked the feeling of looking at the familiar through alien eyes: an unsettling view into our society from the future that gave me lots of food for thought.
Overall this book is not an easy read, but an enjoyably thought-provoking one, with some sly winks to bookworms throughout.
There are four books. Everyone knows this. Everyone who is not too dull even to learn the Book of Moon when they are six summers old. Four books. The Book of Moon, which is for all the people of the village. The Book of Air, which is for those clever enough to study and with the time to leave off field work. The Book of Windows which is for one or two maybe in a lifetime. The Book of Death which is for no one living, not until the world is soon to end. Four books. What book is this then?
– Joe Treasure, The Book of Air
You can find more from Joe Treasure at his website and blog, or follow him on Twitter.
The Book of Air is available on Amazon here.