A quick read that lingers, Jo Furniss’ debut novel All the Children manages to capture the mood of the current apocalyptic trend without devolving completely into cliché.
Marlene Greene is a working mother struggling to maintain meaningful relationships with her children despite her ever-growing responsibilities at work. In an effort to assuage her guilt, Marlene takes her three children and their friend on a camping trip with her sister-in-law and niece. The novel wastes no time in creating an atmosphere of unease. Smoke and fire is seen off in the distance and soon an injured dog joins the ragtag band of campers. A drive into the neighboring village reveals several dead bodies and more alarmingly, no signs of help. A decision to return home offers no relief. Instead Marlene is greeted with the rotting body of her husband and a dying laptop that reveals both an extramarital affair and an explanation: a virus has been unleashed in Great Britain forcing the country into a state of quarantine. A certain sense of disbelief is needed to make this jump, and yet Marlene quickly returns to the camp with her children realizing that the isolation in nature is the only thing keeping them safe.
The novel truly hits its stride in the middle section as Marlene’s youngest son Billy goes missing after an excursion to an abandoned grocery store for supplies. Marlene’s panic and subsequent search helps move the novel along and we are quickly brought into a world of hermits, lost boys and ominous men in helicopters. It’s here that we get to enjoy the best the novel has to offer – action with the occasional moment of reflection.
The novel takes some unnecessary detours that feel like attempts to flesh out our protagonist, but read more like a distraction. Marlene’s relationship with her husband and her late mother feel superfluous and don’t quite have the meat behind them to make it truly relevant or even interesting. The heart of the novel is really with Marlene as the reluctant hero and leader to her ever growing group of lost boys. Furniss would have been better served to explore
Marlene’s complicated relationship with her sister-in- law Joni that is at times both grateful and resentful. At moments, the writing feels a bit clunky and detached, and yet this rings true of our narrator. Marlene is not a woman prone to self-pity or hysteria and Furniss’s tone supports Marlene’s highly clinical, if not slightly unrealistic, assessment of her situation. While the ending was abrupt and a tad disorganized, it did offer a satisfying conclusion as well as a slightly unexpected choice.
This is not to say that All the Children was not successful in achieving its goal, if that goal was entertainment and escapism. If this was Furniss’s attempt at a broader commentary be it the role of working mothers, or the quickly skimmed over refugee crisis, the novel begs for more development.