Plum-Ucci, Carol (2008). Streams of Babel. NY: Harcourt. 432 pages.
Carol Plum-Ucci’s newest novel is not her strongest (The Body of Christopher Creed and What Happened to Lani Garver? tie for that honor in my book); however, Streams of Babel represents a slight departure from the thriller plots we’ve come to expect from her and extends the scope of the novel from the New Jersey Pine Barrens to Pakistan. Told from the multiple perspectives of the teens involved, Streams describes what some begin to suspect is an act of terror: after the deaths of two adults, four young people succumb to an illness similar to that which killed the grownups. This illness is mysterious, gruesome and, ultimately, deadly and the inability of the doctors to diagnose it leads many to believe that the town’s water supply may have been corrupted. Meanwhile, in Pakistan, a sixteen-year-old “v-spy,” a hacker who listens in on suspected terrorist chatter, thinks he has identified the source of the mystery illness.
Plum-Ucci’s technique of providing us (the readers) with only the incomplete details known by the teen characters is a good one and certainly extends the suspense of the novel. I like that she doesn’t attempt to capture the adult/expert perspective here, even though many adults are featured as strong secondary characters. The emphasis on the incomplete teen perspective (even though we readers are privy to a number of such perspectives) underscores the powerlessness and even ignorance we “average American citizens” feel in the face of worldwide terror. That said, I think that dividing the narrative among six voices was a bit ambitious, and I could have done without all of these P.O.V.s. The four narratives from each of the young people infected with the terrorist virus began to get a little repetitive and the voices of these characters didn’t distinguish themselves enough for me. Sure, their circumstances were different and the details of their accounts informed us as to who was speaking; however, the tone of each of these accounts was similar enough that they all started to blend together a bit after awhile.
Plum-Ucci can definitely do suspense, and this novel has it in spades. First, there’s the mystery surrounding the deaths and illnesses of the folks in the New Jersey town, then there’s the race to discover what, exactly, is making folks ill, then there’s the anxiety over whether or not any treatment would be effective. By the end of the novel, I was like, “Woof!” I don’t usually go for the obvious post-9/11 terrorist threat narrative and, while Streams would seem to fall into such a category, it wasn’t over the top. A visit to the 9/11 memorial in NYC in the closing pages of the novel was a little cheesy, but would probably placate those readers who desire that kind of narrative closure.