Review: Under the Blue by Oana Aristide

Oana Aristide’s new novel, published by Serpent’s Tail, is horrifying in a stunning, visceral way. Not, I think, just because it deals with such a bleak subject: the end of the world; and not just because its world is sparse and lonely; but mainly because Aristide skirts around the horror with terrifying elegance. She simply delights in dancing on the edge of the traumatic events that surround and contextualise her story, never showing them in full glory. The context? A deadly pandemic, threat of global nuclear meltdown and a harsh, relentless climate.

Her first trick: to follow a protagonist who is utterly oblivious to the devastating pandemic that obliterates the human population. Harry, an artist, emerges from working on a painting for weeks to find London empty. He sees a couple of people pack up their car and leave the city wearing gas masks. As the reality of a deadly virus hitting the city dawns on him, he rushes to take refuge in a country cottage in Devon.

Like Harry, we readers can’t easily accept the reality of total human wipe-out – so every house or car he raids for supplies is a heart-pumping thrill. Despite the countless bodies he finds, Harry’s conviction that there must be other survivors almost drives him to insanity. The seeming lack of action in Under the Blue is exactly how Aristide packs the novel with tension. She focuses acutely on the terror that her lead character endures in small and great waves coming to terms with this apocalyptic reality.

A small cast of characters makes for claustrophobic drama. Harry joins his neighbour Ash and her sister Jessie in his plight for survival, and the toll it takes sees social structures strain and crumble as they attempt to get along in their common cause. There are moments of beauty in the struggles and squabbles of these remaining survivors, sandwiched tightly between moments of horror. There is a foreboding air of distrust among them – though they are each others’ only company, they seem to each withhold crucial secrets.

However, it is the environment of the book that threatens the characters most: the unrelenting sun causes wildfires on every continent, for one thing; and any lakes, rivers or other bodies of water could be filled with the virus or other toxic chemicals. They are perpetually vulnerable to the world.

Meanwhile, in the Arctic Circle, Aristide interweaves a plot which at first seems almost entirely unrelated, albeit beside the theme of humanity’s end. A new AI program, Talos, is being educated by scientists on all of human history, as they prepare it to predict human disasters so they may avoid them. As expected, though, Talos’ interest in helping mankind dwindles with his inability to fully understand people. Aristide makes sharp observations of our greed and ugly domineering traits as a species this way, and eventually ties this plot into the main story neatly and carefully. This book confidently confronts, without restraint, humanity’s most self-destructive values.

There is much to contemplate here: environmental disaster, eco-terrorism, and the depressingly countless ways in which humans could bring about their own destruction. Aristide observes every element of Under the Blue (2021) with intelligence, care and beauty. Yes, there is doom, but the novel is fused with an unwavering sense of hope. You won’t be able to look away.

By Rory McNeill.