Beware of children—their language will kill you. That’s the premise of this offbeat disaster novel from Marcus (Notable American Women, 2002, etc.).
Had something bitten them while they slept by the ocean? That would explain, think Sam and Claire, their itchy skin and lethargy. But how come Esther, their 14-year-old daughter who’d napped beside them, is doing just fine? Then a pattern emerges in their upstate New York community. Adults are getting sick while kids stay healthy. The symptoms include shortness of breath, facial hardening and immobilized tongues, all caused by children’s speech. Narrator Sam and Claire belong to an obscure Jewish sect. Their synagogues are two-person huts that enclose holes for transmission cables; there they listen to anti-language sermons that advocate a freakish quietism. The virus is its horrifying, unintended actualization. A prominent medical researcher, LeBov, blames “the toxic Jewish child.” His canard doesn’t goose the plot, but the novel’s first, better half is nonetheless compelling. The panic spreads. Sam and Claire are victims twice over. They have pampered their beloved Esther. Now the teenager turns on them, maliciously spraying them (and others) with words. Marcus is at his best evoking their physical decline and helpless unconditional love for their brat—warmth amid the ashes. In time there’s a mandatory evacuation order for adults; children are quarantined. On their way out of town, officials detach the desperately sick Claire from her anguished husband. In the novel’s second half, Sam is a researcher in a medical lab, tasked with creating “a new language to outwit the toxicity.” This is dull and clinical, though the appearance of the sharp-tongued anti-Semite LeBov perks things up momentarily; he points out that Jewish researchers are needed for their “conductive” skills. A short final section has Sam back at his hut coping, barely, with a grim post-apocalyptic world.
Marcus has imagination to spare, but the religious Jewish theme is not a comfortable fit with a raging epidemic, and the suspense ebbs away.