Star Rating: Overall – 4.5, Character – 5, World building – 4, Themes – 5, Plot – 4
Max Brooks generally ticks all my boxes for a good immersion read, and I thoroughly enjoyed his latest book, Devolution. The subtitle cryptically says it best: “A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre.” In short, a natural disaster drives a group of Sasquatch from their native territory into an enclave of affluent, tech-savvy city folk trying to “get back to nature” in a superficially civilized patch of wilderness, setting the stage for a suspenseful and unsettling standoff between animal instinct and human society. The main character, Kate Holland, kept a journal of the events, which was discovered in the investigation of the aftermath. In it, she details not only the effects of the disaster itself, but the breakdown of the enclave’s “unspoken social contracts” and the struggle to survive not only the wilderness itself, but other creatures trying to do the same.
The storytelling in this book is top-notch for those who enjoy suspense and a documentary-type feel to their fiction. The action and detail of the Sasquatch element of the tale reminds me of Michael Crichton’s Congo, which I greatly enjoyed. In Devolution, the narrator employs the same trope that Brooks used brilliantly in World War Z, using interviews with Kate’s brother, who is spearheading a private investigation of his sister’s fate, and the National Park ranger who was the first on the scene afterward, to show what happened after Kate’s account ends. We also learn what else happened to influence events through news reports from the time, and, most interestingly, through controversial academic articles and books about reported encounters with Sasquatch curated by the narrator. The addition of this unsubstantiated information reminds the reader that the evidence is compelling but also possibly unreliable, which lends to the constant and unsettling question of the credibility of the story.
The Sasquatch, however, were not the furthest-fetched element in Devolution. The world Brooks builds is basically a contemporary version of our own, complete with government inefficiency, bullheadedness, and budget cuts that deeply affect lives in ways that the experts clearly warn against but legislators ignore, so that’s okay. And Brooks’ characters flesh out the narrative of the crumbling society well, from the idealistic and entitled founders of the community to the vegan pacifist neighbors to the same-sex psychiatrist couple, to the snooty academic. Yvette Durant, the founder’s wife, and Mostar, the grizzled and wizened old lady up the hill, stand out the strongest and most interesting binary, representing opposite sides of the coin of denial and phobia. Kate’s struggle with anxiety and OCD also adds a lot of flavor to her character’s development from drifting millennial to focused survivalist. For me, the problem comes from the balance of the characters’ collective professional statuses, which Brooks executed almost too well, including someone from just about any walk of life that could encapsulate the world’s current social climate and pounding home the message of how tenuous the bonds of civilization are a little too pointedly. Kate’s depictions of each member of the group do add depth to the relatively unbelievable premise of the enclave and ground it better in reality, but as my husband put it, if this was an episode of Dark Mirror, set in that similar but skewed universe, I’d buy it more than I do in today’s society.
With a firmly willing suspension of disbelief, Brooks’ Devolution is a thrilling page-turner, and his research and depth of character development will have you Googling names and places left and right in search of even more insight into some fascinating people (who just probably shouldn’t have been written in the same place at the same time).