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After the end - ‘The Rending and the Nest’

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Post-apocalyptic novel challenging and complex

It’s not hard to see the attraction that certain genre conventions might hold for writers of a more literary bent. The richness of possibility that is offered by speculative fiction can open up some incredible paths for even the “serious” writer.

Post-apocalyptic fiction in particular seems to have that kind of pull. It’s not surprising; the end of the world and the new beginnings that follow can make for an exquisite canvas upon which to paint an impactful literary portrait.

Rarely does that collision of genre concepts, storytelling talent and big ideas result in anything as memorable, as powerful and as compelling as Kaethe Schwehn’s “The Rending and the Nest” (Bloomsbury; $26). Themes of community and faith intermingle with questions about the power of motherhood and the desperate desire to explain the unexplainable, all revolving around the very human necessity of sharing our own stories. It’s a sharp, fearless narrative – one rendered all the more impressive by the fact that it’s the author’s debut novel.

One day a few years ago, with no warning, approximately 95 percent of the world’s population disappeared in an event known only as the Rending. Those who remain are left to try and piece together some semblance of a life in a world that has been fundamentally altered. The sky is uniformly grey and the temperature is a steady 55 degrees. There is no rain, but the ground is periodically saturated with moisture every few days. Little grows other than root vegetables and mysterious “ghost fruit.”

Mira lives in a Midwestern settlement called Zion. She works as a scavenger in the Piles – giant jumbled heaps of items that appeared seemingly at random following the Rending – seeking anything that might be of use to the settlement. She has some friends and does her best to be of service to Zion, but she also keeps herself closed off for fear of what true connection might mean.

But four years after the Rending – years of isolation marked by the occasional visitor – something changes. Mira’s friend Lana gets pregnant; it’s the first pregnancy since the world disappeared. But what is initially cause for hope and celebration soon turns sinister, as Lana’s pregnancy takes an unexpected turn – a turn also taken by the pregnancies of those who follow.

The people of Zion struggle with these new Babies and what they might mean for the future, and when a new visitor arrives – a charismatic stranger with a flair for storytelling and a self-confidence that makes him almost reminiscent of the Before – he upends the status quo and pulls some Zionites into his orbit while others question his motives.

But when Mira herself becomes pregnant, she finds herself left with a difficult decision. Does she stay put and let go of those who have moved on, despite her fears that something sinister is afoot? Or does she risk everything – her life, the lives of her friends and even her Baby – to try and rescue the small piece of the world that still truly matters to her?

The best post-apocalyptic fiction lives in the space between knowing and not-knowing; there’s real power in mystery. “The Rending and the Nest” gets that exactly right – there’s no epiphany, no a-ha moment that reveals the reasons behind what took place. Instead, the reader is gifted with the stark reality of the situation – there’s no way of knowing what happened, or why. The survivors don’t know, so neither do we. That decision lends a bleak impact to the narrative, an underpinning of quiet desperation that permeates the entire story.

Schwehn has done something remarkable here, creating a rich and nuanced world that exists on a very small scale. She has shrunk the world – the action, despite the feelings of sweeping intensity that it inspires, takes place within just a few miles in terms of area. This relatively tiny chunk of Minnesota has been transformed into a microcosm of this new world, rife with examples of societal sorts good and bad alike. In a world where there’s little left, what little there is takes on a newfound importance; it’s that spirit that Schwehne captures so exquisitely.

The relationship dynamics are complex and difficult in all the right ways, with people who have been thrust together by circumstance gradually finding ways to embrace one another even as they continually struggle with their ignorance. They establish rules and assign tasks, assembling a simulacrum of civilization; it’s a poor replacement for what they’ve lost, but at least it’s something. Into this sad vestigial society, Schwehn pours love and anger and jealousy, betrayal and despair and hope; it’s a jumbled, complicated mess that reads as pure and true as anything you’ll find in a story set after the end of the world.

“The Rending and the Nest” is unafraid to challenge the reader, both narratively and conceptually. It is a starkly rendered book, built on brutally lyrical prose and intellectual provocation. It enlightens and entertains in a way that no debut novel should be able to accomplish. It is the type of beginning you always hope to get in stories about the end.

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