Review by Emily Webber
Helen Marshall’s spine-tingling novel, The Migration, opens with two sisters playing dead and this scene hints at the themes explored throughout the novel—the bond between two sisters and transformations. Now that I have a young son, I more often think about what the world will be like fifty years from now when I likely won’t be alive anymore, but he will. All signs point to massive change coming for our planet and the people living on it will have new choices to make, will have to adapt in new ways, and life will be altered. While some might write this novel off based on the description as young adult or science fiction and fantasy, Marshall is addressing real issues we will be facing. The Migration looks at a moment where the tipping point between existence as we know it and something radically different is fast approaching.
The Migration focuses on Sophie, a 17-year old who has traveled from Canada to England with her mother and 10-year-old sister. The novel is set in the not too distant future and climate change has started to ravage the planet with monster storms and massive flooding. Sophie’s sister has been diagnosed with Juvenile Idiopathic Immunodeficiency Syndrome (JI2), a new disorder affecting teenagers that the medical community is still trying to understand. Sophie’s mother takes her daughters, leaving their father behind, to live with her sister in the hopes of getting better medical care for Sophie’s sister.
Sophie’s aunt is researching the connections between the black plague and environmental upheaval and it represents an interesting thread that runs through the book suggesting the outbreak of JI2 could be connected to climate change. When a video emerges of one of the infected kids having post-mortem spasms, yet another layer is added to the story. In The Migration, the medical community, the government, and adults have no answers and order and infrastructure starts to crumble. It becomes increasingly clear that young people can’t rely on adults, even those with the best of intentions. The adults can’t seem to accept that the world is changing, that people may be evolving, and want to stop it. Sophie makes some shocking choices, but always at the heart of her decisions is a search for the truth and love for her sister.
Throughout the novel events of severe weather and environmental change are happening all over, and Marshall makes this clear with vivid, short mentions of flooding and news stories from other parts of the world. Also, Sophie and her family deal with food shortages, power outages, and most terrifying how quickly they become cut off from the world around them, particularly Sophie’s father. These details set a harrowing atmosphere, and yet the story remains sharply focused on the individual and what is left when everything is disintegrating, creating compelling characters facing complex choices. Even with the characters making different decisions from Sophie, it easy to understand their motivations and the fear they face.
The Migration spans multiple styles and genres; it’s masterfully paced, and the writing is strong and evocative. Some truly weird stuff happens that gave me pause for a minute, but Marshall creates a fascinating story about family bonds and what humans might face during extreme environmental change.