Phase Six
by Shepard, Jim

One of the few survivors of a mysterious outbreak in Greenland, 11-year-old Aleq must deal with crushing guilt for what he may have unleashed from a mining site, while two Epidemic Intelligence Service agents work together to head off the cataclysm.

JIM SHEPARD is the author of seven previous novels, most recently The Book of Aron (winner of the 2016 PEN New England award, the Sophie Brody medal for Excellence in Jewish Literature, the Harold Ribalow Award for Jewish Literature, the Clark Fiction Prize, and a finalist for the Jewish Book Award) and five story collections, including Like You'd Understand, Anyway, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and won The Story Prize. His short fiction has appeared in, among other magazines, The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, McSweeney's, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, Esquire, Tin House, Granta, Zoetrope, Electric Literature, and Vice, and has often been selected for The Best American Short Stories and The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories. He lives in Williamstown, Massachusetts, with his wife, three children, and three beagles, and he teaches at Williams College.

*Starred Review* Disasters often charge Shepard's incisive, unsettling fiction, including the historical short stories in The World to Come (2017). In his riveting and tragic eighth novel, Shepard looks ahead instead of back, dropping us into a post-COVID-19 future and onto the front lines of a new pandemic so ferocious and baffling it rates the World Health Organization's highest risk level, Phase Six. In a small settlement in Greenland, two mischievous boys, Malik and Aleq, frolic among gruff adults living hand-to-mouth lives as the ice sheets shrink, mines pollute, and permafrost melts. By the time investigators for the CDC's Epidemic Intelligence Service-epidemiologist Jeannine, of Algerian descent, and white MD Danice-arrive, the death toll is horrific. The two women fall quickly in love, but Jeannine has to bring traumatized Aleq, who seems immune to this mysterious disease, to a high-security lab in Montana, while Danice stays behind. Shepard tracks the heavy emotional toll on the women, their keen medical sleuthing, and the "cyclonic clusterfuck of bureaucratic hysteria and infighting" among governmental officials who learned nothing from COVID-19. Shepard writes with drilling authority about Greenland, epidemiology, the challenges women doctors and scientists face, and the confounding complexities of the microbial world. With word-by-word artistry, fluid compassion, and deep insights, Shepard emphatically dramatizes epic failures, self-sacrificing dedication, desolation, and love. Copyright 2021 Booklist Reviews.

Paced like a prophetic thriller, this novel suggests that "pandemic" is a continuing series. Shepard has frequently employed research as a foundation for his literary creations, but never before in such pulse-racing fashion. He's set this narrative in the near future, when the threat of Covid-19 has passed but provides a cautionary lesson. And what have we learned from it? Not enough, apparently, as an outbreak within an extremely isolated settlement of Greenland begins its viral spread around the globe. Readers will find themselves in territory that feels eerily familiar‚?"panic, politics, uncertainty, fear, a resistance to quarantine, an overload of media noise‚?"as Shepard's command of tone never lets the tension ease. Eleven-year-old Aleq somehow survives the initial outbreak, which takes the lives of everyone close to him, and he may provide the key to some resolution if anyone can get him to talk. The novel follows the boy and the pandemic from Greenland to a laboratory facility in Montana as, in little more than a month, the virus or whatever it is, spread by touching, traveling, breathing, has infected some 14 million around the world. Jeannine Dziri and Danice Torrone, a pair of young researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who have dubbed themselves the "Junior Certain Death Squad," find themselves on the front lines as they attempt to balance personal relationships (which occasionally read like plot contrivances) with all-consuming professional responsibilities. Meanwhile, the pandemic proceeds relentlessly. "APOCALYPSE II?" screams a Fox graphic amid "the social media cacophony," as mass hysteria shows how human nature can take a horrible situation and make it so much worse. And though the novel builds to a sort of redemption, it suggests that there will be no resolution to the current pandemic beyond nervous anticipation toward the ones to come. Channeling Pasteur, Shepard promises‚?"or threatens‚?""It will always be the microbes that have the last word." All the narrative propulsion of escapist fiction without the escape. Copyright Kirkus 2021 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.

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