Fear is difficult to create but easy to exploit. Once you have a populous that is fearful, they can be made to accept the most radical changes — anything is up for grabs when our "security" is threatened. In literature, as well as life, it's hard to bring on the terror. But when you have your reader scared, you can take them place they might not otherwise be willing or able to go.
In the opening segment of Sarah Lotz's new novel, 'The Three,' she puts readers in an uncomfortable position. Pamela May Donald, a woman on the wrong side of plus size, is aboard a Japanese airliner. She surrounded by the unfamiliar, until the explosion that signals the plane is about to crash. In ten terrorizing pages, readers get to experience that airplane crash, blow by blow. It doesn't end well for Pamela, and it's just the beginning of a novel that cranks up 9/11 fears to 11.
This time around it's not terrorists. Lotz takes that off the table from the get go. Instead, we have four planes, entirely unconnected, except that each went down at the same moment, killing everyone aboard — almost. In three of the crashes, a child miraculously survives. There are rumors of a fourth survivor, of course. The known survivors quickly become a news item dubbed The Three. And just as quickly, they become mirrors for our every fear, voids into which the world's anxieties pour and take malevolent shape. Are they human, still? Were they ever? What do they men?
Lotz tells almost every last bit of the story in a "non-fiction" book-within-a-book titled "Black Thursday: From Crash to Conspiracy Inside the Phenomenon of The Three" by Elspeth Martins. Martins is the sort of headline-grabber who turns tragedy into a tidy profit with a nice bit of empathy by scavenging a series of accounts to craft an oral history of the crashes and what happened after. She's a subtle main character; the narrative is always by her and thus to a degree about her, but it is never about her, really. She's ever and never present.
There are a lot of characters in 'The Three,' and part of the fun quickly becomes figuring out who is who and the parts any of them will play. Because the crashes take place around the globe — Capetown, off the coast of England, Japan and in the Everglades, Lotz has an international cast and a variety of local tweaks to pull off. She handles this all with incredible precision and concision.
There are many unforgettable characters here; Paul Craddock, a gay man who becomes the guardian of one of The Three, Lillian, another who takes a survivor (her daughter's child) into her house, when she's already tending to her husband as he descends into dementia, Chiyoko and Ryu, an online non-couple in Japan, Pastor Len, Pamela May's spiritual guide, and Lola Cando, his personal ... other woman. Tracking these through a variety of media is Elspeth Martins, who we can only hope is giving us the straight story.
'The Three' is almost unbearably tense as readers suss the consequence of the crashes. Conspiracy theories rise like wildfires and burn out of control. Is it aliens, is it the Apocalypse? Just who are The Three, and is there a fourth? If so, what does that mean? This is a brilliantly plotted novel, with layers upon layers. It's also quite bleakly funny.
Lotz's ability to pull this off is due to her superb ability to craft chameleonic prose, to inhabit her characters like a great method actor. Since everyone tells their story pretty much in their own words, the onus is on Lotz to create distinct and authentic prose voices. She's quite amazing and the result is that readers really will feel immersed in the oral history she creates.
It's probably not possible to turn the pages fast enough here, but readers are well advised to slow down and enjoy the ride. The characters in 'The Three' have a lot to say about fear and its uses and about the world as we wish we did not know it. Some of them tell us straight up what they think, and others simply show us by revealing how they think. As you approach the end of the novel, take a breath. Prepare to wish you could read it again. It's odd but undeniable that terror, tension and fear are to be feared — but also, quite counter-intuitively, to be enjoyed.
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