The Three: fictional non-fiction from Sarah Lotz

The Three - Sarah Lotz (UK book cover)This slick, cynical thriller appears to set out to illustrate T S Eliot’s points: the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity.

His comments about the centre and the blood-dimmed tide aren’t far off the mark either.

Four aeroplanes crash on the same day. Investigators quickly rule out terrorism, but struggle to explain what was at fault. They are equally bewildered by the survival of three children, who come through the crashes with minimal injuries against all odds. The crashes and their survivors ignite global conspiracies as a right-wing preacher declares them the harbingers of the apocalypse.

After a difficult prologue (the last minutes of Pamela Donald as she records her final message), Sarah Lotz’s novel presents itself as the best-selling non-fiction account by journalist Elspeth Martins.

I’ll be honest: I have a soft spot for fictional non-fiction. I think it’s an interesting format, and I enjoy the flexibility it gives authors in presenting their narrative. Lotz does a great job here in capturing the tones of voice and vocabularies of the ‘interviewees’ – arguably too good, as I found myself highlighting passages and adding angry notes in the margins. Repeatedly. Let’s just say that I don’t have a lot of time for certain political perspectives, and leave it at that. Still, it’s some good fictional non-fiction that is sufficiently realistic to cut through my belief filters quite so effectively.

The inclusion of chat logs, newspaper articles and twitter feeds were marginally less successful, but allowed Lotz to provide context and alternative perspectives that would have been hard to justify as interviews. Extra credit for her largely off-page handling of the media frenzy, focusing more on its impact than its execution.

It’s a fascinating stew. In the end, I didn’t much care whether the kids were possessed, aliens, the Four Horsemen (all three of them) or misrepresented PTSD sufferers. I just appreciated Lotz’s depiction of the irrational responses we have to things we can’t explain. The craving for patterns and clutching at the flimsiest straws is a familiar process, although It didn’t make me feel better about humanity.

However, what I liked best was the ambiguity. Was Elspeth coldly cashing in or genuinely trying to provide some perspective? (I liked that her letter in the final chapters makes it clear that even her nearest and dearest questioned this too). It’s clear that she had no agenda – her book makes her interviewees’ opinions clear, but crucially leaves room for her readers (fictional and real) to form their own (ir)rational opinion.

…which is why the epilogue left me mildly irritated. I’d have been happy for it to have formed the prologue to a sequel, moving the narrative along – but I would have been far happier with this novel if it had left the question of the children unresolved.

Nonetheless, this is an entertaining if not always easy read. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it hit the big screen as a thriller in the near future – it would translate a little too easily.