Amanda Hickie (MidnightSun Publishing) 2015, 384pp, RRP $28.99
In An Ordinary Epidemic, emerging writing talent Amanda Hickie tells the extraordinary tale of Sydneysider mother of two, Hannah, as she desperately tries to save her young family from the deadly ‘Manba’ virus sweeping the globe. Together with her husband and sons, Hannah retreats to the only place in Sydney she knows to be truly safe – her home. As she busies herself checking online updates and stocking her pantry, Hannah is as prepared as she can be. An unlikely protagonist at first, she is seemingly paranoid and increasingly obsessive in her preparations for ‘the worst’. The quality of Hickie’s writing however ensures the reader is positioned to experience her growing fear for her family’s survival – it becomes impossible not to identify with Hannah as a woman, a wife, a parent.
As the reality of their situation sets in, the family needs to navigate their way through a myriad of emotions and decisions as they grapple with the knowledge that the world has changed forever. Food supplies seem their greatest concern at first, however it soon becomes clear there are other things to be worried about. First the water is cut off, then the electricity. They ration their one remaining mobile phone because they know when that battery eventually dies, they will be completely alone. Too afraid to journey beyond their front door, the family’s self-imposed prison becomes a breeding ground for boredom and the fear that comes from not knowing what is happening ‘on the outside’.
Graphics mark the chapters in Hannah’s journey, a calendar with each passing day shaded – a stark illustration of their relentless isolation. This glaring addition works well when juxtaposed against the development of Hannah and her family’s experiences and reactions – as the days mount, so too does the pressure created by captivity and proximity. Hickie has crafted fine characters – each entirely believable in their responses to this incredible situation.
Zach is absolutely spot on as the self-absorbed teenager that he is, struggling to cope with his own identity and the challenge of learning that his mother makes mistakes. Husband, Sean is the steady voice of reason to Hannah’s growing panic, yet even he is not immune to bouts of churlishness and depression. Youngest son, Oscar and neighbour’s child, Ella provide both a platform for Hannah’s need to protect her own young at all costs and one of many moral dilemmas to be faced by the family – is the life a small child worth risking your own family for? Or how about the life of an elderly neighbour, cut off from family, friends and Meals On Wheels? How far should one go to share your meagre food stocks with those formerly known as friends?
Despite the ghastly subject matter, An Ordinary Epidemic is a heartening account of a mother’s love and of ordinary human beings desperately needing to survive with their humanity intact. The richly layered text works to make this novel a rewarding experience, ensuring that one cannot help but be drawn into Hannah’s new world order. You will read this and imagine your own family in their place.
Rosie van Heerde