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Review: ‘Act of God’ by Jill Ciment

“When God came to Noah and told him a great flood would come and cover the earth, Noah had forewarning according to tort law, […] Did Noah take any actions to prevent the flood? […] He never prayed for the wicked as Abraham did. He never warned his neighbors or business partners that if they didn’t amend their immoral, depraved conduct a deluge was imminent. He took no precautions to ensure the welfare of anyone else but himself and his own and his animals. Tort law is the calculus of negligence.”

How secure are we in our carefully structured lives? What would it take to break down the barriers that separate us from the ranks of the dispossessed, the homeless or the refugee? Who is responsible should the worst happen, and how would we cope if – in spite of our social security, our good credit scores and low insurance premiums – we suddenly joined them?

Such are the questions facing the women of Jill Ciment’s suspenseful tragi-comedy. The women have been evacuated from their homes as a phosphorescent fungus spreads through Brooklyn. The four are drawn closer together as the mold, spreading further and further afield, begins to engulf their lives.

“Here’s the rub: some molds are covered by your policy while others are considered acts of God,’ which essentially means your insurance company will refuse to pay.”

Despite its tight and occasionally witty prose, my enjoyment was stunted by the novel’s relatively slow progression and its rather lifeless characters. While Ciment is careful to treat each with the sympathy they deserve, other than a few stand-out set pieces, I found little in the characters to capture and hold my imagination. It would be easy – as claustrophobic hyper-real dystopian titles like The Handmaid’s Tale, It Can’t Happen Here and The Road find acclaim in a seemingly near-apocalyptic framework – to praise to Act of God, but the four ladies here feel more like stock characters selected only to provide a better panorama of life in a big city: one artsy lady of society, one failed Woodstock hippie, one spinster and one exotic ‘European’. It all feels a little contrived: Sex in the City but with a deadly mushroom contamination instead of margaritas.

That might well be your thing [I’d watch it – Ed.], but the novel is also not helped by its dialogue. Contrary to the tightness of the prose, the conversation at times feels stunted and caricatured. This is especially true in the case of the Russian au pair Ashley. An example:

She pressed all thirty buttons. “In Russia, you press all or you go nowhere.”

Or such stereotypically pronoun-free exchanges as:

“You look skinny, Ashley. Where have you been?”

“God punish me big-time. I eat only ketchup and garbage. I live under boardwalk, like rat.”

“You lived on the beach?”

“First time see ocean.”

Perhaps I came to the book with the wrong expectations. It failed to live up to the promise of a work of literary science fiction exploring two of the great fears of modern urban life: contagion and the loss of a home. It’s less Station Eleven, more The Love Song of Miss Queenie Henessy. Despite a lofty premise, there is little here to remind us that even the luckiest amongst us is only an act of God away from claiming refuge.

She returned to the factory-sized living room, determined to learn how Americans experience stormy black nights. They sit comfortably on their deep, soft sofas, dry and safe, enjoying the rain’s music. They don’t cower like mice fearing unseen hawks overhead. Darkness isn’t a hole you hide in; it’s the cosmos.

Act of God
Jill Ciment / Vintage / 22 March 2016

Phil Clement was raised by foxes in the Forest of Dean and currently works in publishing as a production editor; neither of these are as glamorous as they sound. He has contributed to the New Welsh Review and Open Pen Magazine, and can be found here.

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Vaguely literary things we’ve been enjoying

Librivox

I’m a big fan of audiobooks – a great way to enjoy stories when it isn’t possible to pick up a book – and Librivox has a great catalogue. The works on offer are out of (US) copyright and are free to download, though they do advise you to check the copyright status in your own country before downloading. Anyone can volunteer to record (either solo, or as part of a collaboration), and there’s a friendly and knowledgeable bunch of people who help with things such as ‘proof listening’. I read for them a few years ago and had great fun collaborating on Pliny’s Natural History and some of James Boswell’s work. Reading aloud does make you consider the text very closely, I’ve found. — Elaine

People Reading

people reading-smlA blog I’ve been reading for ten years – indeed, since it started! – is People Reading. In each post, Sonya Worthy snaps a photo of someone on the street reading a book. She then interviews them briefly and finds out what they’re reading and why. It’s one of my favourite sites on the internet. I’ve discovered gems I would never otherwise have found, such as God’s Bits of Wood by Ousmane Sembène. People are always presented as readers first and foremost; she rarely delves into their private lives, unlike more modern sites such as Humans of New York. It’s lovely to see so many people out and about reading.

— Nat

FutureLearn

shakespeare-futurelearnFutureLearn works with unis and cultural institutions around the world to create courses on some pretty interesting topics – all for free – from the comfort of your laptop or smartphone. They’re super accessible and are a great way to intro yourself to or brush up on subjects when you’re short on time and juggling other projects. I’m currently enjoying their course on Hans Christian Andersen with the Uni of Southern Denmark. Next up on my list is their Shakespeare course run by my old uni lecturer Jonathan Bate.

— Sarah

>> Check out the VLTWBE archive here.