As someone with an entirely understandable and logical phobia of anything even slightly wormy, I was surprised at myself for being able to tackle a science fiction thriller called Parasite, especially when the nasties in question are tapeworms, surely one of the least appealing creatures in existence. The fact that I was able to read it and be gripped by it is testament to the power of Mira Grant’s storytelling abilities. Parasite is not an easy book to put down even if there are sections of it I had to read with my eyes closed.
Mira Grant is known for her youngish adult zombie Newsflesh novels. Parasite, by contrast, is aimed at all ages of reader and fixes instead on a different kind of monstrous outbreak attacking humanity. SymboGen has developed a refined, intelligent tapeworm that lives harmlessly in the stomach but has the ability to work with its human host to combat disease and injury. The result is the perfect and harmonious relationship between human and parasite. Sal is an example of its success. Terribly injured in a car crash, Sal was on the point of being declared clinically dead but she has been brought back from the brink. Unfortunately, six years on, she is unable to remember Sally, the young woman she once was. In many ways she is a young child, learning language and the rules of human contact again just as she had to relearn to walk and function. Caring for her, though, is her boyfriend Nick, a scientist who patiently helps her to reconstruct herself under the paternal eye of SymboGen.
Obviously, things have to go wrong and soon random people are afflicted by a catatonic and then violent state. The only clues to the imminent arrival of this madness is the sudden suspicion and terror of animals. It seems that not all of the parasites are content to be subservient to their human masters. They want to be free and they will let nothing stand in their way, least of all their hosts.
Parasite is a fascinating novel for a number of reasons. The relationship between Sal and Nick is an intriguing one, as are the troubled relations between Sal and her parents. Sal is both woman and child. As she rebuilds her life and relationships with her family and friends we learn about her old self just as she does. Her deep dread of cars is horrifying and very moving. Sal is a very likeable character. She might be damaged and vulnerable but she is also extremely courageous and resilient. The friendship between Sal and her dog Beverly is also very well done and effective.
The instantaneous transformation of functioning, capable people into zombies (for want of a better word) is disturbing and the truth as it emerges is an unusual and entertaining mix of compelling and disgusting. As Sal and Nick try and work out what is happening around them they come into contact with people that will make your jaw drop. Tansy is quite a character. She alone is worth reading the novel for.
Parasite is a technothriller (set just a few years in the future) and so it follows the edge of seat path that you’d expect but it is very different, mixing pacey plot with extracts from letters and autobiographies written by the scientists who created SymboGen and this repellent solution to natural decay or injury.
I may have been repulsed by the premise but Parasite is a thrilling read. Nevertheless, as the novel went on I did feel that it lost elements of its originality and surprises became fewer and further between. It was not difficult to guess several of the twists and, as a result, the shock ending didn’t really shock. I found the second half of the novel predictable and flat. Our heroine, Sal, is a child in many ways but in others she isn’t and I found the tone and pitch of the novel suffered from this. It gave me the impression that it couldn’t decide on its readership, particular its age. It felt confused. It must also be said that I had a hard time imagining a scenario in which the population would willingly agree to be infested with tapeworms, no matter what the benefits. But, having said all that, I was gripped by it and it is quite possible that the characters themselves are more than enough to make you suspend all disbelief, even if reading it makes you screw up your eyes and sweat a bit. One thing is certain, Parasite is not a novel I’ll forget in a hurry.