When a small island is hit by an epidemic that kills almost everyone in its path, the government quarantines the island, preventing anyone from either arriving or leaving. Cut off from the rest of the world, with no one left to keep the peace, a group of survivors band together in an attempt to help those who remain and possibly find a cure.
There is something about a good epidemic story that can really get under your skin. When I first read The Stand, for example, Stephen King’s behemoth of an epidemic novel, I fell ill with symptoms very similar to those described in the book and spent the whole time I was reading it wondering if I was going to survive long enough to finish it. We have all been sick at some time and watched a cold or flu pass through everyone at work or school and can easily extrapolate the experience to a killer flu that wipes out 99% of the world’s population. Deep down we fear that the possibility of such an epidemic isn’t as remote as we’d prefer to believe.
In Megan Crewe’s The Way We Fall, Ground Zero for the apocalyptic epidemic is an island off the coast of Canada and the story of how this epidemic takes hold of and destroys the island’s population is told from the point of view of 16 year old Kaelyn via the diary which she is keeping. Just to be clear, this is NOT a zombie novel. It seems now days that every story about an epidemic features a virus that turns people into brain-munching rage monsters, and when I first picked up this book, I assumed it was no different. Instead, the virus at the centre of the novel is just a standard flu-type virus that kills people dead (in the no returns sense of the word), but only after they’ve had time to become very friendly and pass on their germs. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. It worked for Stephen King in The Stand, so why not use the same idea as the basis for a YA novel? The diary format works well as a means of conveying the paranoia experienced by Kaelyn in her quarantine situation and for the time I was reading this book, every time I heard someone cough or sneeze, I found myself wondering if they had the virus, too. Yet, after the initial set up, instead of picking up speed, the novel remains stuck firmly in second gear, rendering the whole thing a bit of a non-event.
Being the first in a planned trilogy, there are certain things you can safely assume going into this novel: the virus probably isn’t going to be eradicated any time soon and the main characters, especially Kaelyn, are probably going to survive. Nevertheless, The Way We Fall could still have been a lot more exciting and tense that it actually is. The problem is that Kaelyn never really does anything beyond delivering food to people, helping out at the hospital and sitting around home. Given the possibilities of the novel’s premise, surely Crewe could have found something less mundane for her to do. For a while, the villains of the story held some promise – a group of locals who start off by looting abandoned shops and move onto killing the infected in an attempt to control the disease - but even they are poorly utilised, with Crewe preferring to let the virus deal with them rather than forcing Kaelyn and her friends to fight them themselves. In fact, at times it feels as though the main characters are just sitting around waiting for their fellow islanders to die so they can move onto the (hopefully more interesting) sequel. (And incidentally, how is it that, on an island where everyone is dying of an epidemic, the main characters all manage to continually avoid infection, or if they are infected, rank among the rare few who survive? Isn’t that a little unlikely?)
The Way We Fall is not a bad novel, but given the plot elements Megan Crewe set up for herself, it should have been a lot better. Maybe the action will amp up in Book 2 of the trilogy (The Lives We Lost), but on the back of this novel, I won’t be rushing to find out.
Verdict: What could have been a YA version of The Stand, never quite manages to rise above the mundane.