Every novel by Marcus Sedgwick is an adventure in ideas different from anything he has written before. This current novel is no exception, and may well be his most challenging yet. It is told by American teenage Ash in a colloquial style half-way between Huckleberry Finn and Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye. Struck down by a mystery condition that absorbs all his energy Ash finally winds up with a small group of fellow-sufferers living in a community outside Snowflake, a small town in the Arizona desert. These have self-diagnosed themselves as possessing Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, or MCS for short. This condition, they argue, is a compound of severe allergies to all the chemicals and general pollutants increasingly surrounding us in the modern world. Any occasional visitor from outside has first to go through a lengthy body and clothes de-toxifying process before they are allowed indoors.
The story takes place some time in the near future. Wearing a mask whenever he goes into town for fear of catching anything bad in the air, Ash passes a strange late adolescence in the company of a fifty-plus woman who has similar problems. He stays there for six years, mostly lying in bed but occasionally doing the odd minor chore. Money never seems a problem in a community that has turned its back on anything resembling regular work.
In a forward Sedgwick describes how he himself had previously been struck down by Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for over five years and at one time had stayed with a group of fellow-sufferers living in the desert near the real-life town of Snowflake. He writes about such characters in the novel with affection and respect, giving them all the best lines including quotations from great figures from the past and their views on the need for respecting the environment. Members of the group call themselves the canaries after the little birds that used to be lowered into coal mines to utter warning cheeps when the atmosphere began turning toxic.
Young people currently involved in the Climate Change Protest and the Extinction Rebellion will find plenty to interest them here. But for others the story could well start to drag. Ash’s emotional as well as physical passivity is hard to take over so many pages and the opinions put forward in his supportive group are never challenged by other characters with contrary beliefs. Extreme environmentalists, suspecting a series of government cover-ups that no-one other than themselves have ever spotted, do not generally make for easy company. The same could be said of this brave, angry and resolutely opinionated story. But if Sedgwick does eventually turn out to be right about the way we are progressively poisoning ourselves, God help us all.