Retreating from an airborne virus with a uniquely unsettling symptom, property developer Jason escapes London for his country estate, where he is forced to negotiate a new way of living with an assortment of fellow survivors.
Far in the future, an isolated community of descendants continue to farm this same estate. Among their most treasured possessions are a few books, including a copy of Jane Eyre, from which they have constructed their hierarchies, rituals and beliefs. When 15-year-old Agnes begins to record the events of her life, she has no idea what consequences will follow. Locked away for her transgressions, she escapes to the urban ruins and a kind of freedom, but must decide where her future lies.
These two stories interweave, illuminating each other in unexpected ways and offering long vistas of loss, regeneration and wonder.
The Book of Air is a story of survival, the shaping of memory and the enduring impulse to find meaning in a turbulent world.
Jason has escaped the chaos of London and is in his house in Wales. He has been sick with a virus that is wiping out most of the population. Abigail and Maud, who he found squatting in the house, have been taking care of him. Then three other people turn up.
I’m looking at the visitors. They’re getting to their feet now that I’ve appeared, and it’s not deference to the owner of the house. The woman speaks first. ‘Are you sick? You look sick. Doesn’t he look sick, Aleksy.’ She turns to Abigail. ‘Has he had the sweats?’ She’s a bit bashed about, but striking, even so. God knows what she’s been through.
‘And the rest,’ Abigail says. ‘Five days ago at least and he’s on the mend.’ She looks at me as though there’s something she wants me to understand. ‘This is Deirdre,’ she says. ‘Deirdre’s on her way to the coast.’
‘Five days? Nobody lasts five days.’ She’s twitchy, this Deirdre. With me in the room, she doesn’t want to settle. She takes a long pull on a cigarette. She’s a classy smoker, all cheek bones on the in-breath, head angled self-consciously to blow. Between puffs her hand is poised at shoulder height, cigarette aimed at the ceiling. She might be thirty – probably less, given the rate at which we’re all aging.
I ask her, ‘Why the coast?’
‘I thought maybe Ireland. They say Ireland’s better.’ I hear the accent now – subtle, like posh English softened at the edges.
‘How better? Like people don’t die in Ireland? Nowhere’s better.’
‘Five days? Are you sure?’ She’s talking to Abigail.
‘How are you planning to get to Ireland anyway? Do you think the ferry’s running?’
‘No one lasts five days. Aleksy, tell them.’ Aleksy is built like an ox, but short – less than five foot. The monkey sits on his shoulder foraging in his hair.
‘I’m here, aren’t I?’ I say. ‘Jesus Christ!’ I don’t know why I’m so angry. Don’t even know what I mean exactly – here in the room while she talks about me? Here alive? Here asserting ownership of my kitchen? All of these.
Aleksy has been working up to saying something, preparing his hands in a judicious gesture, controlling the involuntary movements of his face. ‘A new miracle every day. We live in a time of miracles. Five days and still alive? Who can say? A survivor? It’s possible.’ He settles on a chair, sitting on the edge so that his feet touch the floor.
‘You’re both well, then?’ I ask him.
‘Untouched, thank heaven. Who knows why? Polio I had as a child. You work with animals from Africa, they said. Of course you get sick. But they were peasants who said this and knew nothing. That was a long time ago. Fifty years. And then comes the virus – I watch them go down with it, this one and this one, gymnasts and jugglers. Clowns too. All young and full of health. Dead now, their beautiful bodies scattered across Europe, and me still here – no sense to it, no justice.’
The clarinet starts up in the hall, a wild howling like jazz and not like jazz.
Aleksy nods towards the door. ‘Django. He don’t talk so much. Music is his consolation.’
‘A friend from your circus days?’
‘All gone. The circus is gone.’
‘We picked Django up on the road,’ Deirdre says. ‘I stopped for a pee and there he was, sitting on a branch practically over my head, tooting away. Scared me half to death.’
‘But a gentle boy,’ Aleksy says.
The Book of air is a compelling, character driven tale of survival in a post apocalyptic future. Beautifully paced, it weaves between Jason’s life in a society imploding in on itself when a deadly virus kills millions and Agnes’s in a community regenerating from the ruins mankind’s near destruction.
One of the reasons I loved this book, is that Joe Treasure gives us something unique in genre which is so often full of depressing tales of darkness. He gives us a tale of hope! I have read a number of similar themed books and have been left feeling bereft after each one. Treasure develops his theme of devastating loss, but achieves a unique balance between hope and despair. He gives us a tale in which there is the possibility for mankind’s redemption.
It is also interesting how he uses Jane Eyre to connect Jason’s heartbreak and struggle for survival with the need of later generations to find answers in a world far removed from the one we know now. In Agnes he gives us a figure of heroic bravery, a women who strides out into the unknown, rather than live as a figure of derision within the claustrophobic confines of village life. Jason is a flawed character who is forced to navigate a life in a world left devastated by not only his personal loss, but of all the things that make up society as we know it. He must draw on those parts of his character, that give not only him a chance of survival, but the odd assortment of people who form a community in his country home.
We are drawn to turn the pages, to see if Jason lives and what his connection is to young Agnes. Will society survive and in what form? Treasure makes you care about both of his characters, and those around them. He wants you to understand what makes us human, and gives you hope that when all seems lost, its possible to find promise in the bleakest of troubles.
Its a first class novel, written with skill and understanding. He will draw you in and take you on a journey of discovery, while championing the power of the individual to fight against cruelty and oppression
If you like novels about survival in adversity and the power of memory to shape the future, you should give this book a try. Its a worthy contribution to a genre to often depressingly hopeless in its outlook .
I like feeling hopeful and this book allows me to remain that way.
The Book of air can be bought from Amazon
About Joe Treasure
Joe Treasure currently lives in South West London with his wife Leni Wildflower. As an English teacher in Wales, he ran an innovative drama programme, before following Leni across the pond to Los Angeles, an experience that inspired his critically acclaimed debut novel The Male Gaze (published by Picador). His second novel Besotted (also published by Picador) also met with rave reviews.