“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.