- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 8, 2006


By Carolyn See

Random House, $24.95, 256 pages


The title of a nostalgic old song eerily captures the message of a book reminiscent of a plot that might have been dreamed up by Alfred Hitchcock, in which apparently ordinary people are caught up in a spinning universe where unreality becomes real. In trademark Hitchcock style, it is left to the imagination of the reader to measure the dimensions of a menace that may never materialize, while accepting that it may already be at hand.

Ms. See maintains a skillful balance of terror, juxtaposing the mundane and the monstrous and leaving a smudged question mark as her legacy to her reader. With a sure hand and a taut prose style, she sets the scene in Southern California, where her characters testify to the continuing hangover of the fear that has lingered in America since the terrorist attacks of September 11. It is the kind of amorphous fear that creeps into the world of Edith, the widow whose husband died the day before September 11, and who tries to apply traditional reactions in the face of crumbling traditions.

Edith’s son, Phil is a dermatologist with domestic problems who finds himself suddenly part of a team of medical experts, a “soldier” in training to cope with an emergency nobody can or wants to define.

As his colonel puts it to him, elliptically, “We’re thinking terrorist threats of course but focusing especially on medical events. Just because bioterrorism is inefficient … doesn’t mean these yahoos might not try it. We must be prepared and we aren’t prepared.”

People are afflicted by strange fevers, rashes, alarming symptoms that the military investigators find reminiscent of “historically fatal infectious diseases” like bubonic plague, typhoid, SARS or smallpox. In a darkly ironic twist Phil is told he has been chosen for this mission because he had reported an “interspecies scare” involving dead cats at the University of California at Los Angeles where he works. And of course there is the disappearance of his friend Fred, a research scientist who fretted about strange goings-on with laboratory monkeys.

In a postscript in which she discusses the genesis of this oddly haunting book, Ms. See draws an analogy between a global attack of appendicitis and the psychological aftermath of the war on terror that she calls “crazy making.” She threads the book with reminders of how ludicrous lunacy can be, reflecting that theory in the reactions of her primary characters, while acknowledging that the uncertainty of what threatens them doesn’t make it any less threatening.

In a report on two mysterious deaths at the Los Angeles clinic, Phil asks, “Were these cases mere medical anomalies … that occur once in a decade or a lifetime? Were they, perhaps, part of a ‘trial run’ from an outside hostile source?”

Dropped into an evening of family television at Phil’s house is a news flash about suspected terrorists being captured on the grounds of a California nuclear plant. It winds up with the automatic and meaningless reassurance, “all reports of possible radioactive leaks denied.” Nevertheless, Phil makes a note to “get some potassium pills tomorrow at the hospital if there were any left.”

What gives the book a searing edge is that life trudges on even as America and the world teeter on the edge of the unthinkable and perhaps the unlikely. Phil’s ultimate solution is to take to the seas with his son, roaming the oceans, rarely touching land, keeping in sporadic touch with his mother.

And while Edith reflects on how she has become accustomed to the worlds “lost” and “gone,” she also concludes briskly that most people weren’t going to think about war “until someone literally drops a bomb on the Rose Bowl.” She notes that in the fifteen years she has been a widow, the “real war” dreaded for decades still hadn’t happened although epidemics and chemicals and explosives had ravaged parts of the globe.

“We’ve served our time, been duly terrorized by death, but we’re not dead yet,” she observes drily.

That is the essence of a book of many levels that in the end seems to mock those who feed on panic and predictions of catastrophe. There is a dark laughter in the images reflected in the mirror that Ms. See holds up for her readers. Perhaps as she intends, they may make what they will of such images.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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