Book Review: “The Barrier” by Shankari Chandran (@shankariauthor @AusWomenWriters #AWW2018)

 

One of the most remarkable books I have ever read is Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone (1995), a non-fiction thriller about “the origins and incidents involving viral hemorrhagic fevers, particularly ebolaviruses and marburgviruses”. A brilliant example of what used to be called “literary journalism” or “reportage literature”, the book sent shivers down my spine. I have read many true stories, but The Hot Zone is undoubtedly outstanding not only in its story but also in its storytelling.

Shankari Chandran’s The Barrier (Pan Macmillan Australia, May 2017) elicited a similar feeling in me. Not that Chandran is already an internationally renowned author like Preston, but she, too, is capable of calmly deciphering an intricate network of events and rationales while drilling holes in your soul. The subtle emotional resonance is deafening.

The Barrier gives us a future world devastated by Ebola and religious wars. This world is harshly divided, with countries in the Western Alliance using a vaccine to subjugate their counterparts in the East. While this setting may seem cliché, Chandran enriches it with vivid characters, thrilling actions and daunting plot twists, so that readers are wholly captured. The author’s representation of a Sri Lanka tormented by conflicts is so powerfully graphic, it clearly shows her familiarity with its history and culture, as well as her devotion to its people. I cannot help but assume the island nation is Chandran’s ancestral homeland.

The protagonist is Noah Williams, a flawed and traumatised hero, a man with a conscience. I love the way his sad past is slowly explained as the story advances, as it helps to unearth all the dark, despicable secrets deliberately buried under the big picture. The usual fine line between good and evil is blurred by the complex emotional reasons why people do what they do, but it is through their sense of determination amid all the pain and suffering that the power of their faith is revealed. A good example is Sahara, a mysterious yet strong female character. I would love to know more about her adventures.

Faith is a crucial theme in The Barrier. It reminds us again and again that people fight for a choice, rather than what they ultimately choose to do. In this sense, Chandran’s writing brings back memories of Lois Lowry’s The Giver (1993), where everybody is rendered the same in order to eliminate pain and strife. I also recall the 1988 film Pleasantville, where a perfect world appears only in black and white. But in her book, Chandran points straight to the truth about faith:

“Faith never led to slaughter. Religion did. Or rather, mankind’s use of religion as a weapon of mass and minor destruction did.” (p.70)

Chandran also portrays faith as a natural phenomenon, while the purpose of viruses, like that of all mankind, is simply to survive. These philosophical discussions and debates are cleverly engaged throughout the story, and as I was stunned speechless by the tragic ends of various characters in the book, for a moment I could not help but feel attracted to the highly sophisticated and competent artificial intelligence depicted as a potential saviour of humanity. And Carl Sagan’s Contact (1985) came to mind.

I highly recommend Shankari Chandran’s The Barrier. You can find more details about this book here.

 

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