Review: The Barrier by Shankari Chandran

The Barrier coverThe Barrier by Shankari Chandran
Pan Macmillan Australia RRP: $29.99AUD

Reading The Barrier made me long for the halcyon days of thrillers set in dystopian futures that seemed implausible or, at least, a long way off in the distance. When I first read The Handmaid’s Tale, in the early ‘90s, for example, it was a confronting fantasy; the recent TV overhaul has shown just how blurry the lines now are between outrageous fiction and headline news.

Presented as a ‘sci fi thriller’ The Barrier takes us on an action-packed ride through global political conspiracies that echo aspects of today’s lived experience. Jump into the passenger seat of a government agent’s car and watch spy vs spy, East vs West, and – most importantly – science vs faith, take their toll on an unsuspecting world. It’s the latter than provides crucial twists in what might otherwise be a conventional tale.

Spy vs spy, science vs faith

It’s the year 2040. Dr Noah Williams, a scientist and spy, is caught up in a global management program that’s keeping the peace after World War Righteous and virulent Ebola have wiped out half the world’s population. The West has ‘won’ and the powers-that-be now maintain order using a system of barriers: physical limits on migration, cyber limits on the movement of information, and a powerful Ebola vaccine, on which the population is dependent for survival.

Western powers administer the vaccine in two different forms: the West gets disease control for Ebola and other threatening illnesses, while the East is also dosed with an ‘inhibitor’ against the pernicious and unstable ‘sixth virus’ – faith. The Western ‘God’ – although itself ill-defined – is now the only religious choice. Removal of ‘faith’ also means the necessary destruction of Eastern religious history – no more icons, no more statues, no more stories. This is the price of peace.

But as in any good thriller, all is not as it seems. In a virus-free world, there are suddenly some random outbreaks. Are these naturally occurring or is someone trying to make a point? Virologists on either side of the ‘barrier’ are racing to keep up with mutations and stay one step ahead of their competitors. Vaccines equal power and money, so corruption is a given.

Breaking through the barrier

Meanwhile, many dutifully immunised Eastern citizens are battling addiction to Rapture – a street drug offering a synthetic high to fill the faith gap they don’t understand has been stolen from them. Over in the West, anti-vaxx activists are beginning to question the need for a vaccine, based on the security of herd immunity created by their predecessors, and choosing not to immunise their children.

As the trouble unfolds, Noah hears the tortured witness statements of Eastern doctors who have been paid, or otherwise bribed, to give a ‘different’ vaccine to certain communities. Under pain of death, they can’t say who instructed them to do this except that it was ‘a voice’… ‘a ghost’ … a ‘power’ that wants to be released.

Who – or what – is the ghost?

Could one of the ambitious rogue scientists be about to unleash a placebo Armageddon?

Could the Western desire for ‘choice’ and other liberal freedoms undermine the ‘good’ work done by those in power since the war?

Will the human desire for a meaningful life that goes beyond the physical be its undoing or its liberation?

Feeling breathless? You should be! Phew!

Come for the thrills, stay for the philosophy

I’ll admit I’m not normally a reader of this genre, but other reviews liken Chandran’s writing to Matthew Reilly or Lee Childs. It certainly has the pace of Reilly’s novels and the character depth of Childs’ (from what I know of those authors!).

I can also admit that I am a very disobedient reader when it comes to novels that are dense with scientific or technical details. I tend to take an ‘impressionist’ view of stories like this one, skipping over the facts and figures and seeking out the essence and motivations of characters. Fortunately, this novel will reward readings of either kind! If you’re looking for flawed heroes – you’ll find them. If you are one of the nit-pickers who likes research rigour in their dystopian novels, you’ll admire the depth to which Chandran goes to make sure the medical science stands up to scrutiny.

Personally, I came for the adventure, but stayed for the philosophy. The question of the role that faith plays in our lives needles at the reader throughout. Faith can be many things of course – from organised religion to a reliance on ‘gut feelings’.  Even the most hardened atheist believes in intangible things.

“Khan used to say religion and science are just different methodologies for deconstructing our shared reality, and understanding the same universal truths…” says one of Chandran’s scientists, and this seems to be one of the key conversations she asks the reader to continue when they put down the book.

About Shankari Chandran

I first came across Shankari Chandran’s writing when she and I were both penning frustrated musings on parenthood for Mamamia! I recognised then the intelligence and humour in her writing, and both can be found in The Barrier (yes, there are a few laughs!) She also writes passionately about her ancestral home of Sri Lanka.

Before becoming a novelist, Shankari had an esteemed career as a social justice lawyer in London. Her tales from that time, as well as her fascinating upbringing as the child of a neurosurgeon, can be heard in a fabulous recent interview with Richard Fidler – here.

Buy The Barrier from your favourite local bookstore, or here…

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