A Gasp of What Could Be: A Review of Sarah Blake’s Clean Air
Clean Air. Sarah Blake. Algonquin Books, February 8, 2022.
It might be hard to imagine life after COVID-19: thankfully, fiction is already attempting to capture what it could be. Sarah Blake’s Clean Air imagines what our pandemic could have looked like if people operated out of more altruism than selfishness, and were more community-oriented than individually-focused. While the story is centered on an ecological threat rather than a pandemic, the world of Clean Air features an encouraging vision of a future where humanity agrees to work together.
The inciting incident of Clean Air is an event called The Turning. This begins with the trees, which start to over pollinate, making the air intolerable to breathe for humans. The pollen becomes so thick it kills those exposed without filters or masks within minutes. The response to this threat is collective, with various automated industries and corporations taking the lead to erect domes, which become the new cities and towns. There are many other encouraging developments that occur in the ten years between the pollen scourge and the beginning of the main story. There is a form of Universal Basic Income that is given to those who either don’t choose to work or cannot. Crime has virtually gone extinct, since going outside is impossible without the right equipment. Moving from town to town is conducted via a lottery system, because there are only so many domes.
Centrally planned and centrally organized, even if by a corporation at first, Blake envisions that a semi-socialistic system would arise. Society’s survival depends upon various groups working together—indeed, this is presented as the only way forward. Given the differences from our world, such as the automated cars, the filters, and the jobs that are available, you might wonder why everyone accepts this. Unlike our own pandemic, the pollen forces everyone to stay inside, as it is instantly lethal. Could we have had different results in our world today, at the price of a more fatal epidemic? It becomes quite clear that Blake wants us to consider these possibilities and more.
However, the story doesn’t only focus on collective societal structures. In fact, it starts ten years later, following Izabel as she grieves for the lost world and the loss of her mother, who passed away shortly before the Turning. Izabel’s story is personal and intimate, one that forces her and therefore the reader to reflect, even when an appalling threat comes to their town. A killer begins to stalk the domes, breaching them at random, exposing the occupants to the lung-clogging pollen. Even when Izabel becomes entangled in the mystery of the murderer’s identity, Blake elevates the story above a simple thriller. She keeps the focus on Izabel, her daughter Cami, and husband Kaito. The family comes first because, amidst such a life-altering event, there is nothing else left to cling to.
The world of Clean Air operates similarly to our own. The inhabitants cling to nostalgia—a time of normalcy and peace. They play reruns of shows 20, 30, and 40 years old: “No one complained about the reruns. Izabel wondered if everyone was like her, if they wanted to bury themselves in the past…” For Izabel, this looking back is caused by far more than just the trauma of the Turning itself: the deeper movement of her grief and wondering if she can still be a good daughter or a good mother. The pressure of those responsibilities and roles are apparent throughout the text and are one strength of the book. This twist of relations, feelings, and duties all inform Izabel’s decision to adopt a young girl she saves after the girl’s dome was slashed open. Her navigation of sheltering this girl and welcoming her into an already-tense household is handled with care and empathy.
Clean Air is first and foremost a family drama. It radiates out from the relationship between Izabel and Cami, summed up by a telling quote: “Not that she didn’t want to be alone with Cami, only that she preferred not to be.” And Izabel and Kaito’s marriage: “She thought he’d have to find her dead somewhere to raise that kind of response in him, from him, in order for him to become the person that she always knew he could be.” As things develop and evolve, the killer becomes more desperate and Izabel’s entanglements become more complicated, as the Turning’s full significance is revealed slowly to be both stranger and closer to home than initially anticipated.
However, the prose feels almost too clean. Izabel is honest and transparent with the reader, but is without any true volition, as if she clearly knows what is coming next. Her wants and desires are never filtered, but are given to the reader without a struggle, never overly conflicted. The anthropomorphizing of the trees as if to reflect a “better humanity” is a strange addition. It remains only a tease, since despite the revelation of the trees having such a deep self awareness, it does not inherently change the characters or world. The story ends in a neat package, with various subplots summed up in a few pages, as if Blake wanted to avoid a more complicated or ambiguous denouement.
Maybe life is messy enough without having fictional stories end up that way. Some readers may enjoy that kind of completion, since it does give the text a sense of fragility. Everything, our society, our home, our family can be disrupted, destroyed, and taken from us so quickly. There are some things which cannot be redone or recreated. Some things do not end better. It may come down to the reader’s own background to determine how this ending sits.
Clean Air is Blake’s debut genre work, and should be commended for attempting to offer a current pandemic world a work of post-pandemic literature. It offers hope for a future where intimacy and family still matter, even under the direst circumstances.
Alexander Pyles is a writer, editor, and reviewer based in the Chicago area. Originally from Virginia Beach, he is now a transplant in the Midwest. He holds an MA in Philosophy and an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction. His fiction has appeared in Radix Media, Trembling with Fear, Black Hare Press, and other venues. His nonfiction has appeared in the Chicago Review of Books, Dark Matter Magazine, Three Crows Magazine, Horror Tree, and No Sell Out Productions. When not writing or reading, he is attempting to cook, garden, or play video games when his two kiddos allow it. You can find him on Twitter.
This review was commissioned by an emailed pitch from ARBs calls for review; the author and editors had no previous relationship. It was edited by Misha Grifka Wander and copyedited by Jake Casella Brookins. A review copy was arranged by ARB from Workman Publishing/Algonquin Books.