I'll be very interested to see if airport bookstores stock Sarah Lotz's new novel, The Three. It's a creepy, engrossing look at the stories we come up with in the face of disaster, involving four airplane crashes on a single day.
In the aftermath of these crashes, morbid fascination mixes with conspiracy theories that make the truth seem questionable, at best. In the superheated environment of 24/7 cable news — especially after the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 — The Three presents a scenario that's all too familiar. Or is it?
The Three opens with an American tourist, Pamela May Donald, who's on her way home from Japan after a short trip. Shortly after takeoff, everything goes wrong, and the plane crashes into the Aokigahara forest, otherwise known as the Suicide Forest. She survives the crash, just long enough to record a message on her phone – a warning. As we read on, we observe the aftermath of three other crashes around the world: the Florida Everglades, off the coast of Portugal, and in Capetown, South Africa. There are only three survivors, all children in the Japan, Florida and Portugal disasters: Hiro, Bobby and Jess. The three children go on to captivate the world's attention. As terrorism is ruled out early on, the conspiracy theories build up, ranging from an alien attack to the coming of the apocalypse. Soon, the stories start to change the direction of current events, touching on politics and social norms.
Told through interviews, news articles, blog posts, transcripts, and other sources of information, Lotz's story lets us see the aftermath of the disaster through the eyes of those involved: writers, pundits, fundamentalist religious sects, reporters and investigators. She splits her time between two dominant storylines: the caretakers of the three survivors, and the people caught up in the religious frenzy. In doing so, she seems to make a poignant argument: we crave narrative, even when it's not necessarily the healthiest thing to consume for us.
Following the crash, a backwater preacher, Len [LAST NAME] pieces together signs from the crash: the color of the airplanes roughly matches the colors associated with the four apocalyptic horsemen, which he ties into the greater narrative of the decline and pending doom of modern civilization. His message explodes when it's picked up by local mega-churches, and begins to captivate the world with talk of the coming apocalypse. Pastors open drive-through churches and services, while attendance at other churches pick up rapidly. They focus their attention on the possibility of a fourth survivor, one that'll only add more weight to their arguments, all the while their followers become more radicalized, turning to aggressive methods to spread the word of their beliefs.
In the meantime, the three child survivors suddenly find themselves in a world where there's an incredible amount of attention focused on them, all the while their caretakers begin to notice strange things about them. Jess has an uncanny perception, turning from a withdrawn, shy child to someone more outgoing and forward. Hiro only talks through a robot built by his father, while Bobby seems to have halted or slowed a relative's Alzheimer's, at least a bit. They affect their relatives in different ways. Paul gets freaked out by his niece's behavior, to the point where he's questioning what's real and what isn't. Android Uncle delves into his work, ignoring all around him while creating a replica for Hiro. Bobby's aunt deals with extremist behavior toward her ward.
For all its compelling storytelling, The Three feels a bit scattered. On one hand, Lotz seems to go after the ethics of paparazzi and journalists who're out to sensationalize a story, especially the UK tabloids. On another hand, she presents a stark image of the religious right. In another, it's dealing with the world's spotlight being thrust upon a person or family. These various themes run out in the background, some working better than others. At points, the characters seem broadly drawn based on common stereotypes, which is troubling, until you remember that you're seeing a story play out through a medium that is designed to hype, sensationalize and water down events are much as possible. It's an odd mix, but it ultimately pays off.
We've can easily picture what would what happen if a plane crashed for mysterious reasons: just look at Flight 370, and imagine the coverage that CNN would be devoting to that. The troubling development is seeing the people who pretend (or truly believe) to have all the answers become the leaders, no matter how misguided their narrative or storyline is.
The resulting chain of events between the major storylines is tense: over the course of six months, everything escalates, and Lotz does a fantastic job stoking the tension for the reader. It's grim, all too real, and impossible to tear yourself away from. The Three is a book that does what every book should do: create an irresistible hold over its reader, one that prevents them from doing anything else but turning pages. The Three does this effortlessly, despite the format, which starts off a little odd (although in this digital world, it's not too odd.)
Overall, The Three is chiefly about the extreme lengths we'll go to make sense of events around us. A caretaker goes insane trying to make sense of his ward's behavior. Pastors construct a vision for the coming future based on what they see. A journalist constructs a book based on her interviews and notes. It all comes together in one fantastic novel that is gripping, biting and refusing to let go.