The Three: a very modern apocalypse

TheThreeThe Three is an extremely accomplished and gripping thriller. Author Sarah Lotz is so good at what she does that the plot dragged me in to the narrative and kept the pages spinning past, although the style of story-telling normally sends me screaming from the room.

The set-up here is that there have been four unconnected plane crashes in different countries, with three children miraculously surviving. A warning from a dying passenger suggests that there’s something strange about them, and indeed weird circumstances surrounding the kids then spiral wildly in all directions. Worldwide speculation ensues; religious zealots and internet nutters compete to come up with wilder conspiracy theories while the families of the dead attempt to adjust to their loss and the families of the survivor children struggle to cope with cuckoos in the nest.

All this is told in the format of ‘found footage’ (if it were a movie); in transcripts, emails, message boards, reports, interviews and newspaper articles compiled into a (fictitious) non-fiction bestseller. There’s no linear narrative at all, and instead the plot skips, hops and jumps between the survivors, their families, witnesses, accident investigators, journalists and even a hooker with a heart of gold. Like I say, this type of stunt-writing normally repels me but here it’s been so well sculpted that it forms a seamless flow which tightens the tension as the story surrounding the surviving children gets stranger and stranger.

Along the way, the author neatly stitches in all sorts of pithy observations about modern society – from the influence of Christian fundamentalists in America to the high-tech housebound teenagers of Japan, to the worst excesses of ‘investigative journalism’ and the frightening and very real social isolation caused by depression, alcoholism and psychological illnesses. There’s truly gritty social comment in here about life in urban African slums, and the reality of caring for a relative with Alzheimer’s disease. Oh, and of course there’s the possibility of apocalypse when it turns out that a fourth child might well have survived the fourth crash…

The downside to this complicated form of story-telling is that there’s no single core protagonist, no hero or heroine to truly identify with, and a vast cast of characters who we only get to know superficially. Even the three main families on whom the story centres felt distant to me. I was fascinated by the notion of an anguished Japanese scientist creating an android entity through which he could talk to his dead wife and returned child – an extrapolation of the trend towards preferring intercourse with machines over other people – but as with many of the smart ideas in The Three this one wasn’t exploited to its full potential.

In fact several intriguing threads and suggestions were dangled enticingly under our noses but were abandoned without being explored or resolved. Again, it feels very similar to a handheld-camera dogme movie – all jerky, disconnected segments, half seen in snatched sequences, and no real sense of engagement with the people. The ultra-short chapters force the pace of this book up to full-speed-ahead, but at the end I was left somewhat unsatisfied by the lack of a solid conclusion. Ambiguity in a speculative short story is fine, but after investing so much in the build-up I expected more of a pay-off at the end.

Also some of the blethering, self-important ‘first hand’ reports really dragged on for me – in literary terms Sarah Lotz got it spot-on because this is how people behave when interviewed, but I can’t endure them in real life, never mind in a fictional setting.

So overall I’m awed by the expert construction of this novel, and thoroughly enjoyed most of it while I was reading it. Afterwards, however, it left me with that kinda junk-food feeling of having eaten an awful lot but digested very little of substance. Maybe that’s part of the point…

7/10

Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason

The Three by Sarah Lotz is published in May 2014 and can be pre-ordered at Amazon

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