Author: Sherrida Woodley

ISBN: 978-1-936178-18-6

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Science fiction intertwines with the story of a woman on the trail of lost love in Sherrida Woodley’s debut novel about a world hurtling toward a horrific apocalypse .

Quick Fall of Light opens in an America struggling to survive an avian flu pandemic . Author Woodley’s view of America is bleak and she clearly takes her cues from New Orleans in the wake of Katrina – hers is a nation of communities destroyed, the army policing the streets, looting and arson by people running amok. As greedy pharmaceutical corporates vie for monopoly of an ailing and increasingly desperate global market, Josephine Russo sets out to unravel the mystery behind her ornithologist husband’s death, only to find far greater secrets lurking in the life they shared. For Robert Russo’s research has been merely a cover for a larger project – one that could potentially reverse the effects of the plague that is threatening to turn humankind extinct.

A deliberate slowness marks the book’s initial chapters, introducing us to the sheer weight of Josie’s grief. Josie is difficult to empathize with, drowning as she is in self absorption, guilt and residual hurt over the emotional estrangement she has felt in her marriage. I confess to feeling a little impatient myself, as she wanders clueless into the forest , armed with little more than Robert’s Russo laptop. But stick with her, for the pace soon picks up – as does Josie’s inner fighter – and what starts off as a personal journey towards answers – or, possibly, suicide - becomes a race against time. For Josie inadvertently becomes trustee to the antidote to the global plague. Drawn into Josie’s enigmatic orbit is Sterns, a logger with secrets of his own, whose efforts to help Josie find closure lead him towards his own. Fellow fugitive in this race is the source of the antidote itself – a passenger pigeon named Gem-X, an avian superhero of sorts, with cognitive skills way ahead of his species. Gem-X is also a phoenix, resurrected from the ashes of extinction by a few far sighted scientists ( if only for the secrets of his genetic code) , and his survival is critical not only for the future of his own species but that of humans as well. Hot on the heels of this ragtag trio is Pritchard, troubled assassin and reluctant aide to the greedy pharma giant Gem-X has escaped from. Alternating between the lives of the three human characters, Quick Fall.. is a powerful indictment of science gone wrong and a strong voice for the preservation of the biodiversity we so routinely undervalue.

In this regard, Quick Fall.. reminded me of another blend of science fiction and medical anthropology – the stunning, ‘The Calcutta Chromosome’ by Amitav Ghosh. Here too, the humble pigeon becomes the link to understanding and possibly decoding the menace of a killer disease – malaria. And, much like Ghosh's Mangala, Woodley's Elsa too suffers a God-complex that leaves her blind to the ethical code that leads her to forget the humane in pandering to the human. And while in all other respects - voice, scope, vision - the two authors are quite different, they nonetheless explore the intrinsic bonds that tie human beings - and their survival- to other, often innocuous, species.Interestingly, Woodley's story is partly set in India, and describes a home grown remedy to the flu that women in the slums of Dharavi improvise (much like the researchers trailing malaria in 'Chromosome'),only to abandon soon after. To me, this small incident speaks volumes for the strengths of local innovation and traditional remedies, all too often smothered by the cartel that is organised allopathic science.

Quick Fall.. is a book that tests its readers; Woodley’s writing has a spare, stripped down quality to it that demands your undivided attention. Keep up, she seems to say, or be left behind. Characters reveal themselves to us in jagged fragments, little details – terse dialogue, troubled memories, the tense arc of their bodies, the relics of the lost loves they alternately hold onto or resent. Nor does she handhold her reader through the technical details. Yet I wouldn’t call this a deterrent at all; rather, it suggests research and an ease with the subject - qualities essential in any world-building exercise. There are moments, however, when Woodley shares with us her awe at the beauty of the wilderness of America, or fleeting moments of love that the characters experience -moments of lush imagery that offer welcome pause in a narrative that can seem daunting in its austerity. Hope for the future undeniably glimmers in these passages,as in the quiet strength of characters like Sterns and Prestonia who resolutely stick to the familiar rhythms of their lives even as everything around them falls apart, and in the powerful uplift of the final images this book leaves you with.

An elegant debut from a writer I hope to read more from.

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