I picked this up two weeks ago because I loved the cover and because Yodamom liked it.
I didn't realise how much of a topical read it would turn out to be. "Past This Point" is about the struggles of a woman in self-imposed exile in a New York City after the Eastern Seaboard has been quarantined following the outbreak of a killer virus. The day I started it, the Governor of New York declared a state of emergency because of the rate of COVID-19 infection.
At the start of the book, I thought I was getting a slightly more nightmarish version of current events. The writing felt functional but accessible and kept everything moving along. The main character was very easy to identify with and root for. And she had a dog so everything was good.
I soon realised that this wasn't a typical read for me. The main character was nicer than the main character in most of the books I read and the whole thing had a wholesome feel that I hadn't noticed was missing from almost everything I read.
I found myself being amazed that the, otherwise sensibly cautious, heroine trusted the government enough to register online for testing even after the possibility of a quarantine was announced. I was even more surprised that the Federal Government turned out to be trustworthy, competent and intent on saving lives.
I twitched a little when the writing turned too mushy for comfort, sentimental descriptions of being in tears - water fell from my eyes kind of thing - that felt too decorous for me.
Yet, as I read on, I'm finding myself becoming differently engaged with these characters than I normally am when I'm reading an apocalyptic story. I believed in them and I cared about them and I wasn't at all confident that they'd survive.
It's made me realise that I've been conditioned to expect a particular kind of behaviour from characters who are surviving a crisis. I expect them to maintain an emotional distance, to do what needs to be done and not allow themselves the luxury of moral scruples. The subtext of many of these novels is that ruthlessness is the key to survival. It also helps if you're an ex-ranger or former navy seal or have some kind of martial arts training or perhaps a paranormal capability that gives you an edge. Then you use your skills to win. It's assumed that you know what winning means and that winning is worth the price and that we should cheer when you use the edge that you have over others to make it through.
"Past This Point" comes at the whole thing differently. The heroine has no special abilities apart from being happy with her own company, having a practical frame of mind and a habit of taking responsibility for herself. She feels the strain of surviving: the fear, the isolation, the helplessness and wonders whether she is starting to lose her mind.
The main difference is that she's not ruthless. She hasn't created an emotional distance between her and her situation. She won't abandon her dog. She does what she can for the two little girls with the dying mother in the building opposite. She calls home and gets encouragement from her mother and practical advice on how to jimmy a lock from her dad. She remains the same person she was before the crisis.
To my surprise, the consequence of all this is to increase the emotional impact of the story. She doesn't keep an emotional distance, so neither can I. I have to take in what it would really feel like to be in this situation.
Which may explain why, without any overt violence in the first third of the book - no hoard of living dead, no ravening reavers, no gangs of slavers - this story felt heartbreaking while the other stories felt more like watching a videogame play out.
The violence did eventually arrive but it was at a realistic, human level that actually gave it more impact. No superpowers or specialist skills were needed, just personal bravery, a lot of determination and a little luck.
The scenes with the two little girls in the building opposite that our heroine talks to every day and who we know from the beginning are doomed, had me in tears.
I was totally immersed for the first three-quarters of the book. I'd been enjoying myself, if occasionally being made to sob as someone dies counts as enjoyment. I'd become quite engaged with the main character (although I'd assumed she was late-twenties not late-thirties - do thirty-eight-year-old-women really call their parents for advice on how to jimmy a door with a crowbar) when the Englishman arrived I got but bumped out of the story a little by some details that don't work.
Our heroine rescued an Englishman who had been beaten and left for dead in front of her apartment (I liked that role reversal) and it was immediately clear that he was going to be the love interest. I had hoped to get to the end of the novel without that but I was up for it if it was well done, which it was until the details the Englishman shared about his background stopped working. Being English, I found it very distracting that his background demonstrated so little knowledge of England.
He's from a wealthy hotelier family. He describes himself as spending weekends at "our country house" in Surrey. Someone brought up to this lifestyle would be more like to say "our house in the country". Then he says that when the weather was nice:
"My father and I would fish and hunt ducks".
I can imagine the fishing but duck hunting in Surrey is extremely unlikely. It's illegal to shoot at ducks in the UK unless you're shooting at a flight, which would normally be around dawn. You only get flights of ducks in a much wilder, less densely populated counties than Surrey. If you were going hunting with a gun, it would be more likely that you'd be culling deer.
Then, presumably to show his humane side, he talks about changing the way his parents bought dogs. He says:
"I refused to allow my parents to buy the purebreds they’d always gotten before."
The English don't buy purebred dogs. They buy pedigree dogs and this use of "gotten" is at best Transatlantic English.
This is all small stuff and not at all important to the story BUT, if you choose to use a character from another country then it's best if you pick one you're familiar with or get someone who comes from there to guide you.
I did get back into the story and I enjoyed the ingenuity that the pair showed in trying to make it to the edge of quarantine zone to see if they would be allowed out but the last part of the novel felt less real and less intense to me.
Perhaps that was partly because real-life made this book, written in 2019, feel overly optimistic. The main character is shocked by a death toll of 250,000 people. I expect COVID-19 to kill that many here in the UK. For the whole of the Eastern Seaboard, it feels like a win.
Nevertheless, this was a solid, well-thought-through, read with a strong emotional punch and a fresh view on how real people react in a crisis.