Synopsis from Back Cover:
A boy wakes up in bed in a room built of stone. He knows his name is Stephen, but he can remember nothing else about himself. He discovers that he’s in a remote monastery being looked after by a group of monks. Beyond the monastery walls, all traces of human life have simply disappeared. Villages deserted, doors left open, with taps left running, but no people. And with all means of communication down, he has no way of knowing if the rest of the world has disappeared too.
Then the visitors arrive, strange men with unnatural powers, and when he discovers who they really are it turns his whole world inside out and changes everything he ever believed.
Out Of Nowhere is a “28-days-later” style young adult novel, only arguably with a better plot. From the outset there is a complete lack of awareness regarding the goings on in the outside world – like the children Stephen and Kirsten the reader knows only that something is not quite right. Being set in an abbey in western Ireland, despite the year being 1999, is disorientating temporally, which greatly compliments the unreality of the apparent new world these people find themselves in. The novel does demand placement in the ‘fantasy’ genre for it’s apparent ‘supernatural’ elements, but more than anything it reflects a genuinely unsettling Lovecraftian distortion of our own world. This sense of the familiar being tinged with things that just aren’t quite as they should be and which have no obvious explanation, is far more psychologically troubling than the average horror or a typical fantasy would usually try to achieve. Perhaps the best example (and my favourite!) of this is the recurrent appearance of the two children’s doppelgangers. While they are harmless in this novel, doppelgangers have a (literary) history of psychologically disturbing more than physically harming, and this level of fear is very much the level the book works on.
The characters are not the strong point of the book. They play certain roles at best – and many of the monks are more likeable than the two main characters. However, it’s very much a plot-driven book, built on suspence.The characters become an extension of the reader, for the purpose of exploring this strange new world (for seeking out new life, and new civilisations?), for gaining insights into other races, other existences. At the same time, the monks are strongly characterised which works favourably as the story progresses. Some monks are religious, and believe devils are responsible. The secret history of the ex-‘freedom-fighter’ monk Philip, upon revelation, rings disturbingly true; it brings a distinct reality to the violence in human nature, which then contrasts with the necessary work of the ‘unnatural’ Agents, the Fix-It Men. In Simon a philosopher is seen, and his role of questioning adds another layer towards the end of the book when explanations are required – Simon mentions Plato but a certain delightful existentialism seems to eminate from the Fix-It Men.
The structuring of the novel is superb. The writing is straight-forward and each chapter is short. In terms of narrative, it’s mostly third person (when referring to the people) and first person (from the perspective of the other-worldly, murderous ‘agents’). This draws the reader’s sympathies towards the supernatural races, thus forcing an objective and unfavourable view of humans. Whelan has natural wit and avails of sarcastic humor throughout, which reflects mainly on the state of the modern world. While this book is intended for young adult readers, older readers will appreciate these subtle remarks – particularly Irish readers. Probably the most beneficial structural element is the division of the book into three parts – one of which deals with how the world is responding to this phenomenon. The author, having already written two young adult books about the political state of early 1900’s Ireland, doesn’t miss an opportunity to ground his fantastical story in the real world. He involves the international political uproar regarding the occurence, suggesting in a rather humorous manner how the world might deal with such an incredible event.
If this book can be said to have any fault, it is that it is too short. Perhaps this is my own personal criticism, because reading it as a child, it seemed much longer. It is only 240 pages, and while it is a well rounded, and certainly complete story, it does touch upon a whole history unbeknownst to humans. The novel could easily have made a full blown horror/science fiction masterpiece with the concepts (and another 200 pages) fuelling it, but that is not to say it is not superb in and of itself. The ending piles more onto the reader than the previous 180 pages, and while it just about gets away with the complete shift in atmosphere, it does seem to emphasize it’s own failing by just not adding more depth to the explanation. Shortness is to be expected of Young Adult books though, and I can’t deny that as a kid myself I thought this book was pure genius – and I’m more grateful that ten years on it still packs a punch.