Friday, June 28, 2013

An invisible menace

Over breakfast this morning I read about John Snow, a London doctor in the mid-19th century whose research showed that polluted drinking water was responsible for the severe cholera outbreaks that were claiming so many lives in certain areas of the city. The authorities refused to believe him and his substantial evidence, preferring to believe the disease was being caused by bad air, not bad water.

Move this story ahead almost two centuries and change a few details and you have the basic plot for Carla Buckley's novel Invisible. Dana Carlson returns to Black Bear, Minn., her hometown, after many years away after getting a call from her teenage niece telling her that her older sister, Julie, has seriously damaged kidneys and needs a transplant. After arriving in Black Bear, Dana learns that Julie has died and that a shocking number of other locals have failing kidneys, too.

She wonders what has happened in Black Bear since she left town under mysterious circumstances. Is something making all these people sick? Does it have anything to do with the most prominent local industry, a company that manufactures sunscreen and cosmetics? Her sister worked there. So does Julie's husband and daughter, Peyton.

Although Invisible is an interesting medical thriller that raises serious questions about the safety of nanotechnology, the novel comes most alive when Buckley writes about the relationship between Dana and Peyton. While Dana searches for answers, Peyton has many questions of her own. Why did Dana disappear? Why has she never even come back for a visit? Why does she stay in town after Julie's funeral? Why is she so committed to tracking down what may be threatening Black Bear when she doesn't live there anymore? What family secrets are being withheld from Dana?

The novel makes compelling reading, even if it doesn't always ring true. The story is telescoped into a matter of days, when in real life it would take months, if not years, to accomplish what Dana, who lacks even the training John Snow had, accomplishes.

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