I think I’m going to be sick.
Info Dump: A deadly disease ravages a small town, Friendship, Wisconsin. Set post-CIvil War, the stage is set in dead summer Slowly, the town’s sheriff and pastor watches as one by one every one dies.
The story starts several years after the civil war. Jacob, minding his own business, is called to deal with a deceased army man. This man is a carrier for a plague. The Doctor keeps things silent to avoid panic and, well, prevent anyone who has it from leaving. So they do. The contagion spreads to his family and the , which is the local whore house.
The disease is not the only threat, as soon a summer fire threatens the town. As the threat of the fire in the dry summer increases, the losses in the town increase as Jacob’s daughter falls ill. Soon, his wife gets ill as well. In quite possibly one of the most disturbing and gut wrenching scenes I’ve ever read in the slow reveal of Marla’s death. I couldn’t even look at my girlfriend after I’d finished. Yet, from a book stand point, the narrator lies about the condition of his wife and daughter to his sole confidant, the doctor.
The towns boarders are closed for quarantine, the residens of Friendship are still kept in the dark. Many of them continue to fall ill.
Even when the doctor gets pathogen, the situation remains unclear. So, what’s going on? None of the infected have contact with one another. Slowly, the town burns as the fire reaches. Finally, in an act of desperation, Jacob allows those he views as not sick to leave on a train. Except, they all die in a crash. This leaves Jacob the lone survivor.
Here, as a the final pages close, we learn that the narrator, as suspected, is not the perfect person. He practiced cannibalism to survive the Civil War. There is strong evidence to suggest that our narrator is responsible for seemingly random acts of vandalism against Friendship.
- Jacob – Narrator. Undertaker, pastor, sheriff. The story is told through his perception. He is an unreliable narrator.
- Doc – The town doctor.
- Marla – Jacob’s wife. She is strong willed but loving.
- Amelia – Daughter of Jacob and Marla.
Ebb and Flow: Prayer is relentless.The tension starts with the first page and doesn’t let up. We’re slowly watching a mental breakdown. Like in life, that strain isn’t always obvious still it happens. Brilliantly told in second person, O’Nan’s story puts the reader over the shoulder of Jacob. This isn’t about seeing the end coming, or the ending even being a surprise–it’s telegraphed from almost the first chapter, after all. No, this is the rising tension that’s so thick the reader can barely stand it.
Every page is densely packed. Sure, the book is only 195 pages long, but each word is precise, carefully chosen. No over descriptive pages describing a world. The proper words create a richly immersive text that surpass many books that are filled with much more description.
There are no happy endings. The effectiveness of this book is partially predicated on the expectations of the reader. There should be a happy ending. Someone must survive. But no one does. The final nail in the coffin is the death of everyone in Friendship on the train. Perhaps, the reader is allowed to believe. Perhaps, those 30 something survivors will make it out alive. Only that no one does. Every one dies. This is enjoyable, despite sincerely disturbing because the entire time as a reader, I kept hoping, kept expecting some semblance of a happy ending. I should have known better, I’ve read O’Nan’s other work. Happy is not a word that would commonly used.
Perhaps the greatest compliment I can give is that none of the terrible moments are played for shock value. Each moment is earned. I wasn’t surprised to find out that Jacob was a cannibal in those last pages. Somehow, it made sense. Everything from the random looting and vandalism across down subtly build toward this revelation. Jacob survived the Civil War, having fed off another soldier. This revelation is a final weight on a book that doesn’t let up on depressing. Even Jacob’s necrophilia is well played. The reader knows what is happening but not until the final pages is anything explicitly stated.
Spine Shivering: There were so many. The moment the baby dies. The moment I realized his wife was dead. Discovering Jacob was a cannibal. Many of the moments in this book are built, painstakingly slowly. As the reader, we are privy to these with foreshadowing and pacing, yet the only outright statement of shock comes with the announcement that Jacob once ate parts of a fellow, living soldier.
Recommendation: Interesting question. I think it depends. If you like morbid, horror suspense, pick this up. It’s exceptionally written. I wanted to throw up when I’d finished this book. Not in a bad way, but I was so disturbed by the world O’Nan has created.
Next Time: I’ll be reviewing “If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things” by Jon McGregor.