In the summer of 2020, I was trapped in my house in the suburbs of Gresham, Oregon. The sky, usually a brilliant blue, glowed a sickly orange. My once verdant city was encased in a misty cloud of poison. It was like living in a moment in a science fiction movie where the aliens were about to attack. Everything became about the Air I breathed.
Air quality is everything.
So oddly, my history gave me a slight connection with Clean Air by Sarah Blake, a story that is part post-environmental and part-murder mystery. The narrative takes place within a world of air quality so bad that people have to live in plastic bubbles, and much like in the movie The Happening by M. Night Shyamalan, trees go on the offensive. Most of the world is immediately killed off, and the remnants of humanity hide in plastic bubbles with nothing but air proof plastic tarp keeping the outside world from getting in.
The story follows Izabel and her young family, who live in a world post-event. I can understand Izabel as a character, young, confused, and unfulfilled. She is reminded daily about the effects of what the outside Air can do to someone and seeks to keep her and her family safe. She also has significant trauma to deal with about her mother’s death. These two things, the trauma and the possible doom of the situation, hang over Izabel like domiciles.
Furthermore, there are murders in her neighborhood that are both repellant to her and fascinating. A mysterious man is slitting the protective seals on neighbors, which makes them suffocate. Izabel becomes obsessed with finding out who is doing these things, convinced her family is next. There is also some magical realism that we get hints of early on in the story, but it finds its footing later.
The format of the story is complex. Clean Air is told in multiple time jumps. Its jumping gives context to the family and what happened to Izabel’s mother. While I can understand the necessity of jumping around, I struggled with it. It made it very difficult to connect with the characters on the level I wanted. However, I liked the characters. I thought that they were well done.
Stories of what happens “after” a post-apocalyptic event are more enjoyable to me than the actual event itself. I would imagine an event such as the one described in the book would have a lot of people, myself including, running around in circles screaming, “Why is everyone dying?!” Instead, an author can focus on how humans will be humans, flawed as we are, and look for opportunities to talk about finding hope and purpose in a very different world.
Blake did that in Clean Air, but instead of a higher purpose or hope, Blake has given us a murder mystery. Humans will be humans, after all. I like the authenticity of that idea. It has a definite realness to it
However, the trouble I had difficulties with time jumps. Some readers will be fine with the elements of the story related to the jumps, though. That is a case-by-case basis. Even with my difficulties, this is a highly original well executed story. Future readers should try this story out with the caveat that you will know quickly if this works for you, because it it does it will be worth it!