Adrift after a biblical catastrophe, trying to survive a flood of a different sort
By Sarah Blake
Algonquin Books, 320pp, $26.95
Sarah Blake’s new novel “Clean Air” is set in a near future with just a hint of the supernatural. It’s a decade after “The Turning” when the trees shed so much pollen into the air that the atmosphere became unbreathable for humans. The trees have, ironically, saved the remainder of the human race from their own polluting nature. We never get a full description of how it all happened — that’s not what the book is about — but to save itself, humanity had to contend with a flood of pollen and a lack of the titular “clean air.”
In her 2019 National Jewish Book Award winning novel “Naamah,” the poet Blake wrote a playful, knowing, serious Jewish novel about a different flood. “Naamah” was fashioned to function as an extended midrash — a story that pulls out a strand of narrative to explain it — on the character of Naamah who appears briefly in Genesis. Blake noted that Rashi identifies her as Noah’s wife and ran with it, rewriting biblical climate catastrophe from a modern woman’s perspective, diving beneath the literal waters that covered the ancient earth as well as the metaphoric ones of female sexuality and sex.
As in Blake’s previous novel, the central character is a woman adrift in a world that’s flooded and inhospitable to human life. She has a family and, apart from a few characters that are adrift with her, there is no escape. But the tone, the attitude and the details are deliberately quite different from the earlier novel and, more important than the future setting is the fact that the protagonist — Izabel — is mother to Cami, a 3-year-old. Because, despite the distraction of the setting, “Clean Air” is a murder investigation seen through a mother’s eyes.
Since The Turning, humans have built towns of air-filtered plastic pods and a whole series of processes to stop pollen getting in. In one small town, a tall, masked man is slashing a bubble home every few nights, effectively killing those inside. Suddenly, like the taut plastic bubble of the living spaces, the fragile security of the new world has been ripped open.
Izabel witnesses an attack from a distance so she knows the murderer’s rough build but little else. She has so little to offer the indomitable Inspector Paz that she briefly becomes a suspect herself. Her awareness of the perp’s shape means she’s constantly scanning people in public spaces to see whether, perhaps, they could be the murderer. The characters she scans are a purposeful cross-section of society, races, religions, ages and — as we see, height — but that variation seems contingent, almost tokenistic on the part of the author. As if after this “flood” she wants to demonstrate that there are still two of every variety.
So, without much context, Izabel notes that she is a descendant of Uruguayan Jews and, somehow Andy, her friend and lawyer, also manages to reveal she’s unobtrusively Jewish. Religion is not crucial for either of them – and it isn’t for Izabel’s Japanese-American Buddhist husband Kaito either. Jana, the young girl they end up fostering, is Muslim but, again not meaningfully so. The inclusion of so many races and religions that make no significant difference to characters’ actions within a tiny cast, also feels tokenistic.
After our experience of pandemic mental stress through enforced isolation, de-routinization and mass global trauma, we can identify with Izabel’s constant knife-edge anxiety. Even before the murders, she is already split between needing to provide comfort for Cami and the keen feeling that the sense of normalcy projected by Kaito and the town is deeply fake. The presence of murder in the town heightens that dissonance and her involvement with it brings it to an almost pathological level. The final unmasking of the murderer is bathetic, the real struggle of the book is how Izabel comes to terms with herself.
Izabel simultaneously harbors feelings of intense hatred and strong identification with the killer — someone who is prepared on the one hand to cathect her deep misgivings about the fakeness of their settlement but, on the other, someone whose actions threaten the life of her daughter. This is not a science fiction book with glitzy technological gadgets or radical social innovations, but we find out about Izabel’s feelings through one of the book’s innovations — the “privacy booth.” In a tightly knit society of limited physical resources, privacy and unrecorded notes are a luxury — even in therapy someone is watching you. In the privacy booth, though, Izabel can scream out her anxiety and write physical letters to Cami and the murderer that she can rip up without fear that they will incriminate her.
Japanese gods, climate apocalypse and murder-mystery notwithstanding, this is a book about the deep existential connection of motherhood and its mundane daily granularity. Yes, Blake shows Izabel dealing with her part in the age-long chain of human history and global civilization. But, more importantly, she portrays Izabel as mother: making sure that Cami gets her appropriate toothbrush, bedtime stories and supervision. Izabel is also jealous of Kaito’s relationship with Cami, but, perhaps realistically, that particular relationship remains stable, fraught and unresolved.
There’s lots to admire and enjoy in this nontraditional story of Jewish motherhood, but the novel never quite equals the sum of its parts. Beyond Izabel, the characters are barely sketched. The mystery isn’t particularly satisfying. Izabel’s behavior sometimes feels dreamlike in its oscillations and, however realistic, reading about aspects of her life with Cami is just reading about childcare.
In “Na’amah” Blake evoked a protagonist who took her power and particular female insight from an epic situation whose traditional setting is deeply male. Sadly, though, Blake is never quite able to harness the power of her apocalyptic setting to elevate Izabel’s journey of realization beyond the mundane.