‘Flowertown‘ was S. G. Redling’s debut novel. I went looking for it after reading her Science Fiction novel, ‘Damocles‘, an impressive First Contact story with a twist. I was surprised to find that her grimly plausible thriller ‘Flowertown‘, was an even better novel than ‘Damocles’.
‘Flowetown’ tells the story of the surviving residents of a small town in rural Iowa who have spent seven years in quarantine after the accidental spillage of an experimental pesticide contaminated them with a lethal and highly contagious biochemical agent. Many of the residents died. Those who survived have been undergoing experimental drug regimes to arrive not just at a cure but at something that will remove the biochemical agent from their systems so that they are no longer carriers. The lockdown is enforced by the Army. The medical regimen is run by a division of the same company that made the pesticide.
This is a quietly disturbing novel. Its plausibility makes it menacing but its strength comes not from the mechanics of the situation but from the emotions that the situation produces. It is a novel that is soaked in the despair that comes from normalising the unacceptable and recognising it as unchangeable. The atmosphere is so claustrophobic and so filled with the rage that is the only refuge against impotent hopelessness, that I had to take regular breaks as I read the story.
From the beginning, ‘Flowertown’ is an uncomfortable read. The main character is hard to like. She’s tough but sour. She flips between despair and rage except when she’s high, which is most of the time. Then something happens that makes her sober up and pay attention and you get glimpses of who she used to be and who she might have become if this hadn’t happened to her. It’s not that she becomes easier to like, she’s aggressive, reckless and unstable, but as you understand what she’s been through, you see that those are the traits that helped her to survive.
The first half of the book felt like it was contaminating me with the despair that Flowertown residents feel. As I understood how they had been treated and what they had survived, I grew angry on their behalf but I couldn’t see a way out. By the second half of the book, I started to see that something new and even worse was about to happen to Flowertown and that our heroine had been set up to take the blame for it all. Often, at this point in a thriller, there would be a renewed sense of excitement as you consider how the hero will win through. In ‘Flowertown’, the atmosphere of hopelessness was so well developed that it seemed to me that the bad guys had to win and that the only question was how badly everyone else would lose. Then, in the last quarter of the book, the pace accelerated towards an action-packed ending filled with surprising twists on what was really going on and who was driving it.
For me, one of the most chilling things about this book was that, although it’s ten years old, it feels contemporary. The plausibility of the plot was increased by having recently seen how the authorities treat the infected in a pandemic. What gave it teeth was the gaslighting and social engineering that weaponised fear and anger to drive people inside and outside of Flowertown to a specific result.
It seems to me that ‘Flowertown’ deserves to be one of those books that everyone talks about. I’m now recommending it to anyone who will listen.
I recommend the audiobook version of ‘Flowertown’ narrated by Tanya Eby. She does an excellent job in getting the atmosphere across. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.