Book Review: The Curiosity by Stephen P. Kiernan
The Curiosity by Stephen P. Kiernan (William Morrow; 432 pages; $25.99)
I still remember the sensation I felt when I read some of my favorite novels for the first time—Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son. The sense that I was not reading just another ordinary book or just another mundane story overwhelmed me. Instead, I was considering the writer’s very own soul. Reading these narratives turned into a transcendent experience. These emotions resurfaced as I read Stephen P. Kiernan’s dazzlingly provocative, compelling debut The Curiosity, and I welcomed them. The Curiosity blends science fiction, fantasy, romance, and history, producing an intriguing and poignant tale guaranteed to leave an indelible mark on readers.
Kiernan’s first novel is adroitly plotted, skillfully paced, and interspersed with delicate foreshadowing. Dr. Kate Philo, a scientist on an innovative mission led by Erastus Carthage, and her team look for small frozen life forms such as plankton and shrimp in the Arctic Ocean that they can “reanimate,” or bring back to life. The experiments thus far have worked, but not on large beings and only for a very short time period.
Imagine their shock when they find a man frozen in the ice, a discovery that redefines both life and death. On Carthage’s orders, the specimen is shipped back to his state-of-the-art research lab in Boston. There, scientists reanimate the subject regardless of the implications, inciting media frenzy and leaving religious fundamentalists reeling. The “Lazarus Project” reignites the age-old debate between science and religion.
The Curiosity is told from varying, intricately-drawn viewpoints. Kate, the sole female protagonist, energizes Kiernan’s narrative as she illustrates sympathy, empathy, and even love for the subject. Kiernan contrasts Kate with Carthage, the vain and obsessive-compulsive antagonist, a character I loved to hate. Curiously, Carthage’s account is told in the second person. Kiernan’s use of “you” ensures no one will identify with this adversarial narrator, undoubtedly a deliberate and highly effective move. Daniel Dixon, a reporter, functions as another of The Curiosity’s raconteurs as he stokes the media firestorm yet ultimately redeems himself.
The true star of Kiernan’s work, though, is the curiosity himself, the man raised from the dead: Jeremiah Rice. As he slowly regains his memories, we learn that Jeremiah was a judge who fell overboard into the Arctic Ocean in 1906. Priceless are Kiernan’s passages in which Jeremiah tries to understand and navigate the twenty-first century. Heartbreaking are the passages in which he discovers the fates of his loved ones. As Jeremiah’s health falters, the story takes on an ominous dimension. Reanimation of a human is just too new and mysterious a phenomenon.
Jeremiah’s future matters deeply to us. To experience his death a second time would dishearten the reader, as Kiernan understands.
His and Kate’s fate are precarious but makes for captivating reading. Whatever happens, I know you will root for Jeremiah just as I cheered him on.
Brilliant, imaginative, and thoroughly unconventional, The Curiosity is my new favorite novel. As a reader and reviewer, I hold so many books in my hands. But The Curiosity is a story that will be forever etched in my heart. Kiernan binds you to his narrators in such a way that you will never forget them; his characters stay with you always. That is why I hereby declare the hand of Kiernan divine. When you finish this tale, you are not the same person who started it. And that’s a good thing.