Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro commented on CBC radio once about an obsession she developed with Albania and Albanian culture before she wrote one of her famous stories, 'The Albanian Bride.' Alas, I've not yet read that story, but my own fascination with all things Shqiptar was greatly gratified by reading J. Stephen Thompson's subtle medical adventure story, 'The Aftermath.' Thompson, unlike Munro, was actually there on the ground in Eastern Europe. He was one of several Canadian public health professionals helping in the rebuilding of Kosova, and his evocations of the scenes, people and cultural motifs he experienced are as nuanced and sharp as one could wish.
The story itself begins so unobtrusively that for the first few chapters, I wasn't certain if I was reading a novel or a sort of extended, lightly fictionalized New Yorker piece about the rebuilding of public health in Kosova. The text was always interesting, though, and I was still reading along effortlessly when, in section 3, the plot really set its hooks into me. After that, there was no stopping the read: it barrelled along like a bus with no brakes on a Macedonian mountain road.
Thompson's style is plainspoken. It cuts discreetly into and out of perspectives in a way that feels like a William Burroughs story unscrambled to put its chronology back in order. There is no groping for aphoristic phrasing, temple-bell metaphor or high, painterly description; but, as Ernest Hemingway showed, we can tell a story as a story in straightforward text and still make the lines of poetry start to hum. In fact, there is plenty of insight here - about love, about ethnic relations, about bureaucracy, about friendship - and the mosaic style that Thompson has devised communicates it well.
Those of us with a scientific background can also compliment Thompson on the accuracy of his information about microbiology and bioterror. This gritty factuality holds both his plot and his scenery together. We can also give him high-fives for keeping the writing vivid and accessible to every reader, even those who wonder if a virus and a bacterium aren't pretty much the same thing. OK, we could give him one red mark on the Quality Control sheet for erroneously extending the range of the feared virus-transmitting mosquito, Aedes aegyptii, into Canada and Kosova. If he'd gone out on a limb, though, and cited Aedes albopictus instead (even though it lacks A. aegyptii's literary fame as the death whine of yellow fever and dengue haemorrhagic fever), then he would have been on solid speculative ground. Something for the next edition, perhaps.
I recommend that anyone who appreciates that you can draw compelling novels out of love and plague - reference 'Love in the Time of Cholera' by Gabriel García Márquez - read J. Stephen Thompson's book. Gëzuar! (Cheers!)