The other day, my husband took in the latest COVID statistics and wondered: What if this were a really big one? Someone less grounded in history and science and, well, reality, might say, Huh? This isn't big? That someone, however, is not Jim Shepard, who's clearly been thinking along these lines, and probably well before this latest outbreak swelled to pandemic proportions, judging from the extent of the research evident in "Phase Six," his eighth and latest novel.
It begins in a tiny settlement on the west coast of Greenland, where 11-year-old Aleq and his friend Malik, playing on the site of a new mine, acquire an ancient pathogen unearthed by the groundbreaking. While this germ quickly kills everyone in the village except Aleq, we watch with that frisson of know-it-all horror as it also begins to make its way around the globe on the breath of the small mining crew splitting up and heading home.
Though Malik doesn't last long, his friendship with Aleq — soon the grieving, isolated and utterly beleaguered object of increasingly panicked investigation — is one of the emotional anchors of the book, making it real in a way that reams of scientific data simply don't. The other friendship that keeps us grounded is one between two Epidemic Intelligence Service officers — Danice the "lab wonk and doctor and Jeannine the epidemiologist" — dispatched to Greenland by the CDC.
The novel is set a few years after COVID, when "as in so many instances in American politics, after the lesson had been learned nothing had been done about it," and the cultural components of the pandemic are noted now and then, but most of the story is concerned with Jeannine and Danice's race to wrangle the disease — Danice from the base established in Greenland, Jeannine at Rocky Mountain Laboratories, an enhanced biosafety lab where she's sent with Aleq, the "index patient."
Phase 6 is the World Health Organization's highest pandemic level, but here it is also the final stage of Jeannine's theory of Relationship Phases, "when you started thinking, Maybe the problem is me." And, indeed, the novel moves between the personal and the scientific in a way that is at once informative, suspenseful and heartfelt — a balance that Shepard manages with remarkable grace, imparting a ridiculous amount of data and historical detail, but mostly believably couching it in the characters' thoughts and often funny and endearing dialogue.
The balance, in fact, seems to be the point, as Aleq's plight and Jeannine and Danice's struggles persistently shift our focus from natural science to human nature and back again, reminding us of our precarious place among the world's infinite possibilities.
Ellen Akins is a writer and a teacher of writing in Wisconsin.
By: Jim Shepard.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 256 pages, $25.95.