Disease, it seems, is the disaster du jour. Whether it’s the vampiric virus in Justin Cronin’s “The Twelve,” the SARS-like epidemic in Lauren Groff’s “Arcadia” or the killer flu that wipes out 99 percent of the world’s population in Peter Heller’s “The Dog Stars,” contemporary culture seems addicted to fantasies about its own vulnerability to contagion.
Unlike most recent entrants into this crowded field, John Smolens’s “Quarantine” doesn’t feature an imaginary disease or a contemporary setting. Instead, it uses one of the many outbreaks of yellow fever that afflicted American cities in the late 18th and early 19th centuries as the springboard for a novel that is half plague narrative, half historical romance.
The story opens in June 1796 with the arrival of the trading ship Miranda, in Newburyport, Mass., from the Caribbean. On board are molasses and lumber, as well as horses for the ship’s dissolute owner, local grandee Enoch Sumner. But with them comes a fever that has already claimed the lives of the captain and many of the crew.
Summoned to inspect the ship, the surgeon Giles Wiggins, Enoch’s half brother and a veteran of the War of Independence, elects to quarantine it. Enoch, whose excesses have brought him to the brink of ruin, does not take that decision lightly. Yet when those on shore begin to die as well, Giles elects to pursue more drastic measures, quarantining the port and establishing a pesthouse on the outskirts of town.
There’s a lovely spaciousness to these early sections, especially the opening chapter, in which Giles and various others make their way out to the dying ship anchored in the port. One of the problems in any historical novel is striking an effective balance between information and imagination. At first blush, “Quarantine” looks like the kind of novel likely to err on the side of information, but it only occasionally feels overburdened with explanation or detail, usually in the form of overly expository dialogue. (“Much of the wealth of this town was earned from privateering during the war — activities we now treat with all due patriotic respect.”)
Indeed, if anything, “Quarantine” feels a little underdone historically. It gives too little sense of the foreignness of the past or of the gulf between the minds of its characters and our own. Even the debates about the fever’s causes between Giles, who correctly intuits a connection to mosquitoes, and his more conservative colleagues, who believe it to be a result of volcanic effusions or divine will, are oddly muted, capturing little of the intellectual ferment that gripped medical science in the late 18th century.
That problem is also evident in the chapters dealing with the spread of the fever. There’s something peculiarly unsettling about plague narratives, not least because they lay bare deep anxieties about our mortality and our capacity to control natural forces. But as works such as Camus’ “La Peste” make clear, the true power of the plague narrative lies in the capacity of disease to strip away the artifice of society and reveal the true face beneath.
“Quarantine” is not blind to this power. As the disease spreads, the divisions beneath the surface of Newburyport begin to emerge. Some are religious, reflecting the tension between those who regard the disease as the wages of sin and those who see it in more scientific terms. Others divisions are economic and social, driven not just by the tension between rich and poor and black and white, but by the lingering effects of the War of Independence. Still other divisions are more basic, reflecting the struggle between those, like Giles, who feel an obligation to their fellow human beings and those who see an opportunity to profit from the misfortune of others.
Yet despite their power, these questions are quickly pushed aside in favor of a series of increasingly implausible plots involving the machinations of the Sumner household, a mysterious French beauty and a cache of stolen medicine, plots that culminate in a chase on the high seas, cannon fire and, finally, the tragic death of one of the characters.
The problem with these sections isn’t that they’re badly done, although the comic portrayal of the Sumners often strains credulity. Instead, it’s that these scenes seem to be drawn from a different sort of novel, one less interested in exploring the implications of its subject matter than delivering a sophisticated sort of entertainment.
Bradley’s most recent novel is “The Resurrectionist.”
By John Smolens
336 pp. $25.95