‘Under The Blue’, a Pandemic in Europe… Sound Familiar?

Under The Blue is Oana Aristide’s debut novel, published in 2021. It chronicles the experience of a reclusive artist, Harry, in the midst of a plague-like pandemic that leaves Europe a deserted, soon-to-be-inhabitable wasteland littered with corpses in the year 2020. At the same time, researchers Lisa and Paul are ‘educating their baby’ Talos, an advanced AI program, out in the Arctic Circle. As time goes on, and Harry traverses a deeply unfamiliar and unsettling European landscape, these two threads begin to converge in a fascinating way.

We’ve all obviously seen our own pandemic with the onset of COVID-19 in early 2020. The similarities between our recent history and the premise of this book is an unfortunate coincidence; Aristide began writing Under The Blue back in 2017 and so I was keen to see her take on a pandemic in Europe. Having lived through COVID (though really, we’re still very much reckoning with it) the novel’s events seem so close yet so far removed from us, and somewhat difficult to imagine in real life. But it’s not within the realm of impossibility. If you’re looking to avoid our present reality, or the chaos and uncertainty that was rife in March 2020, then Under The Blue is not the book for you.

The writing is vivid, and is the stuff of nightmares really. The dystopian, near apocalyptic atmosphere is difficult to reckon with. The fictional virus is hellish, an ancient disease brought back to life by the disastrous effects of climate change, it causes a highly contagious respiratory infection that kills with speed. But initially, Harry isn’t aware of this. Holed up in the London flat of his deceased nephew, painting, he is slow to respond to the change of events, and in fact misses when things really begin to get dire. Forced to flee in a rush, and then later follow two young sisters, Ash and Jessie, across the continent under the unbearably hot and sunny blue sky, Harry is our main protagonist, and I dislike him immediately.

He just isn’t particularly likeable, and this later proves justifiable. An older man, he spends more time than is necessary, or comfortable for the reader, leering at his younger neighbour Ash: her bottom in a bikini, a sliver of exposed skin. Fuelled by their minor flirtations back in London, his thoughts are largely occupied with her, as well as wishing her sister away to leave the two alone. It’s concerning and unsettling, and Harry is routinely characterised by his lust for her. At one point, he thinks of himself solely in terms of the heat from the sun and his lust for Ash. But this is far from the most important thing in this book, for obvious reasons. That said, all of the characters are actually rather mundane. There is nothing extraordinary about them, and that’s part of what makes Under The Blue work so well. These people are undeniably human, overwhelmingly normal, all dealing with their own baggage: Harry with his nephew’s death, Jessie and Ash with their own complicated sisterhood, Lisa with her marriage. They are just ordinary, unsuspecting, not necessarily good people caught up in the world’s collapse, much like the rest of us were in March 2020.

Raising her computerised child in the cold, Lisa’s heavy pondering and intricate philosophical debates with Talos about war, ethics, and the supposed sanctity of human life are intense and overstimulating in contrast to Harry’s intercontinental road trip with Jessie and Ash. They seem worlds apart, but in the final quarter of the book these stories quickly intersect.

In the end though, I was left pretty unsatisfied. Talos’ connection to Harry, Ash, and Jessie could have been explored in much more depth. We’re only given a surface-level overview of what that connection even is, of what the novel seemingly spends much of its pages trying to establish. It was a little heart-wrenching, and the ending moved quickly but was still somewhat underwhelming. Aristide will leave you wanting so much more, but won’t deliver. Really, you’re left to draw your own conclusions to some extent.

A contemporary eco-thriller, Under the Blue is a terrific piece of work. Largely through Lisa and Talos’ debates, Aristide forces us to take a long, hard look in the mirror. As I said before, although we very recently saw the outbreak of a pandemic play out in a much different way, the events of this novel are not impossible. Had COVID been more devastating (well over half of the English population dies in Aristides’ world) and we had AI as far along as Talos, it could be all too realistic. And though I didn’t love the ending, I thoroughly enjoyed the book.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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