Chris Adrian's THE CHILDREN'S HOSPITAL is a prodigious and darkly imagined tale of the Second Flood, or as his characters call it, the Thing. In this modern-day watery apocalypse, Noah returns in the guise of one John Grampus, an architect guided by angelic divine inspiration to design a nine-story children's hospital capable of floating like a ship. Grampus's plans are exotic beyond his wildest imaginings - he does not understand much of what he is designing, nor will he know its full capabilities and purpose until after the event occurs. Since the book opens with the beginning rainfalls of the second great flood, we learn about most of this in hindsight. We never witness the stages of doubt and disbelief Grampus must have endured, but Grampus is not the focus of Mr. Adrian's story. Rather, it is the bizarre, almost grotesquely ill children under care in this hospital who are the primary concern, along with a self-doubting, short-memoried, barely competent medical intern named Jemma Claflin (note the initials J.C.), her psychotically self-mutilating deceased brother Calvin, and her beau, Dr. Rob Dickens.
An angel guides John Grampus in constructing the world's first uprootable floating hospital -- complete with post-Flood self-expansion capability and replicators that can recreate virtually anything from the "old world" - and angels occupy a significant place in the post-apocalyptic era. "It takes four angels to oversee an apocalypse," Adrian tells us early in his story: a recording angel, a preserving angel, an accusing angle, and a destroying angel. The reader is left to discover the identity of each angel and how they effectuate their designated roles.
Once those inside the hospital (medical staff, suffering children, and some parents) get past the stark realization of their survival and its divine implications (compounded, no doubt, by the omnipresent recording angel), they relapse into barely modified versions of their former roles as tenders to the sick children. Life simply carries on, floating as effortlessly and aimlessly as the hospital itself over flood waters seven miles deep. A few relationships form, but only one bears the fruit of pregnancy - that of Jemma and Rob. At about the same time, the nearly medically incompetent Jemma is suddenly vested with extraordinary curative powers that radically alter life in the hospital and reshuffle everyone's roles and the pre-existing power structure in the "ark." Still, Jemma's powers are not limitless, and after a period of euphoria over everyone's well-being, a new disease nicknamed the botch appears that Jemma is unable to combat. A number of further strange events occur, and a new survivor is even plucked from the waters.
To say more about the story would reveal too much for prospective readers. Suffice it to say that this all leads to a somewhat unexpected and literarily satisfying conclusion that does neat poetic justice to the Noah's Ark story and portends well for the "new world." It is certainly arguable whether the resolution is worth the effort of slogging through a 615-page novel. I remain of mixed mind on that question, feeling a bit like someone who's finished running a marathon but thinks it would have been nice if the race had only been 20 miles instead of 26. Nevertheless, Chris Adrian has populated his tale with an engaging cast of supporting characters -- from Jemma's friend Vivian (the only survivor who sets out trying to determine why God would have brought the flood down upon the Earth), Drs. Snood and Sundae, the lesbian minister Father Jane (how transsexual is that?), the amnesiac survivor retrieved later from the waters (aptly christened Ishmael), and of course, the 701 surviving children, especially the blood-drinking Pickie Beecher and the psychopathic Jarvis - all of whom help pull the reader into the peculiar life of this peculiar floating hospital for 600-plus pages. As the New York Times Book Review stated, "To read Chris Adrian is to take part in the exciting process of watching a talented and original writer gain mastery of his powerful gifts." Amen to that, brothers and sisters.