Book Review: The 100 Year Miracle: A Novel, Ashley Ream (2016)

June 1st, 2016 7:00 am by mad mags

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you…

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for suicide and child abuse.)

It did things to people, this miracle. Strange and not wholly wonderful things.

“Do you know what it’s like to be terrified of a shower?” Harry asked. Rachel did know. Unfamiliar showers sometimes had abrupt changes in temperature, which hurt her back terribly, but she did not say this to Harry, who had continued talking without her. […]

Most people, Rachel knew, didn’t want you to talk about your pain, not unless it was temporary like a twisted ankle or hitting your thumb with a hammer. If you did not hold up your end of the bargain and get better, things fell apart quickly. People would avoid you. It was easier to keep hidden, and she felt sorry for Harry because he could not hide.

Every hundred years, the Artemia lucis – tiny, eight millimeter long arthropods – come alive. They hatch from ancient eggs and spend the next six days mating, or trying to, before laying the next generation of eggs and dying. During the nighttime, they emit a neon green glow, turning the whole of Olloo’et Bay – their only known habitat – into a wondrous light show. The phenomenon is known as The 100 Year Miracle.

Yet, despite the colloquialism, few people are aware of the insects’ more miraculous properties. The (fictional) Olloo’et – southern Northwest Coast peoples who resided on (the fictional) Olloo’et Island until they were forcibly relocated in the 1920s – believed the (fictional) Artemia lucis sacred. During their infrequent periods of activity, the Olloo’et men partook in a ceremony: accompanied by a shaman and tribal leader, the men spent six days and nights drinking the bay’s water (complete with insects), which had hallucinogenic effects. The men reported having visions, slipped into trances, experienced great physical pleasure – and even claimed that the bugs cured their physical illnesses. Occasionally someone died; “usually by walking out into the water and never coming back.”

The shaman’s presence was necessary for everyone’s safety, as the ingestion of the insects created a sort of window between this world and the next:

According to the missionaries, the glowing green ribbon that appeared around the island once every one hundred years represented to the Olloo’et either a path from the ancestral world to this one or the other way around, depending on how it was translated. So those who drank of the bay’s waters would either receive spectral visitors— a sort of personal haunting—or their souls would be transported to a spectral plane, which is an entirely different kind of thing.

The Artemia lucis doesn’t just hold a professional interest for Dr. Rachel Bell, but a personal one too. When she was six year old, her mother’s boyfriend threw a pot of boiling water at her, leaving thick, painful, disfiguring scars from the back of her neck down to her waist. Her days are filled with unrelenting, chronic pain. Though painkillers take the edge off (if she’s lucky), the Vicodin has already started to damage her liver and, by her count, will lead to respiratory and/or heart failure in a year. Rachel has contemplated suicide many times since the accident, but for the past two years – since she was put on the research team tasked with studying them – the Artemia lucis has been the only thing keeping her going.

If only she can test their purported analgesic effect on herself. If only she can study them, keep them alive and breeding in captivity, identify and isolate the active compounds, synthesize them in a lab. Then, maybe, she could live. If only.

Rachel goes rogue, as it were, pursuing her own agenda under the radar. Along the way, she pulls Harry Streatfield and his family into her scheme. Harry has a progressive neurological disease that’s slowly killing him – along with an extra room that will afford Rachel more privacy with which to conduct her illicit experiments. But his ex-wife Tilda, a former state senator who’s moved back in to care for him, isn’t as trusting of this woman who kinda-sorta vaguely resembles their dead daughter Becca. Nor is John, a local ecologist and a descendant of the Olloo’et who joined the research project at the last minute.

It’s not just time Rachel is racing against as she struggles to decode the secret of the Artemia lucis – but also those wishing to protect the endangered insects (or profit from them themselves), and her own increasing paranoia and fear.

The 100 Year Miracle is a surprisingly dark read: creepy, atmospheric, and increasingly manic as the Artemia lucis near the end of their cycle. Yet the most haunting aspects concern Rachel and Harry’s disabilities – and the chronic, unrelenting, unspeakable pain they cause – rather than the paranoia and hallucinations caused by the insects.

Both characters are made vulnerable by their illnesses and injuries – a condition they both struggle against, with varying success. Harry and Tilda’s interactions are an emotionally fraught dance: Tilda tries to assist him when possible, without either of them acknowledging the reality of it. Harry looks away from his plate, and when he turns back, his shrimp have magically dissected themselves into bite-sized pieces. Harry is going to die – just as surely as the Artemia lucis – and yet it’s an inevitability he cannot entertain, even as he must. There seems to be a ton of compartmentalization going on there.

Likewise, the only people who know about Rachel’s scars are her doctors. During her waking life, she keeps them covered – with shirts, high-necked jackets, her hair – and refuses to reveal the physical impairment they cause. Given her lack of mobility, not to mention how much pain she’s in, this is a testament to Rachel’s will and determination. In Harry, Rachel could find a kindred spirit and confidant: if only she were up for some personal disclosure. We see a hint of this when Harry complains about how difficult it’s become for him to navigate the shower – a problem to which Rachel can relate – but, alas, she doesn’t take the bait, no matter how much I wanted her to. I can’t help but think that things might have turned out different, if only she’d opened up to Harry. Or found a good support group. Something.

In any case, it’s this – the possibility of being betrayed by your own body – that’s really the scariest part of The 100 Year Miracle. Pain, whether physical or emotional (or both), is a sort of shadow MC in this story, lurking in the background but rarely, if ever, spoken of aloud.

But Rachel’s descent into madness takes a close second. Told from multiple viewpoints, The 100 Year Miracle features a plethora of unreliable narrators – both unwittingly and intentionally so – who further muddy the waters, as it were. Like Rachel, by story’s end you won’t know who to trust – or even who the “real” villain is. (I’m still not 100% on the ending.)

And yet: I found myself empathizing with many of the characters, even as I feared (or feared for) them. They’re all complicated and flawed, but in a way that tugs at the heartstrings. Well, except for Tip and Hooper. Eff those guys.

Read it if: You crave a dark, suspenseful, and weird-but-not-too-weird story.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)


Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: When Dr. Rachel Bell was six years old, her mother’s boyfriend Darren threw a pot of boiling water at her, resulting in severe and painful burns (and, later, scars), running from the back of her neck all the way down to her waist. The scars are thick, intractable, painful, and significantly impair Rachel’s quality of life. She’s basically addicted to Vicodin, which – if she’s lucky – takes the edge off the pain. However, the drugs are beginning to damage her liver and will, she suspects, lead to heart or respiratory failure in a year. Additionally, the injuries she suffered meant that she fell behind her peer group in school, and never caught up. She’s socially awkward (some might say rude) and doesn’t have any friends. Though she’s in her 20s, at least, she’s never had sex. The only living people who know about her scars are her doctors.

John, a local ecologist brought onto Rachel’s research team at the last minute, is a descendant of the Olloo’et, (fictional) southern Northwest Coast peoples who resided on (the fictional) Olloo’et Island until they were forcibly relocated in the 1920s. The insects they’re studying – the Artemia lucis – were considered sacred to the Olloo’et. He’s described as “darker skinned” than the other characters, and has a traditional Olloo’et tattoo on his neck.

Harry Streatfield, who’s middle-aged, has a progressive unnamed neurological disease. He suffers from partial facial paralysis, tremors, and chronic pain. The muscles on one side of his body are wasting away. His ex-wife Tilda moved back home in order to take care of him.

Harry and Tilda’s older child, Becca, died when she was nine. There was a car accident; Harry was driving, and Tilda blamed him for Becca’s death.

Harry’s doctor’s name is Dr. Woo.

When she was 20, Rachel’s mother died of cancer.

A woman at the symphony – who Harry mistakes for the ghost of his dead daughter – commits suicide by jumping off the balcony.

Dr. Eugene Hooper occasionally suffers bouts of malaria, thanks to a trip to Borneo early in his career.

Tip’s parents both passed away.

Animal-friendly elements: Not so much. Even though they’re “just” insects, the centerpiece of the book is animal experimentation and exploiting a rare, arguably endangered bug for medical purposes.

Harry’s dog Schubert (Shooby for short) was adopted from the Humane Society.


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