Book review: Act of God by Jill Ciment

(cover image courtesy Pushkin Press)
(cover image courtesy Pushkin Press)


Adversity often strikes us when we are least expecting it.

That’s largely because our natural tendency, the Eeyores among us not withstanding, is to hope for the very best, to let hope spring eternal until such time as it becomes abundantly clear that it has no intention of rewarding our loyalty.

It’s this proclivity to look ahead for the edifying, the joyful, the rewarding, that completely blindsides the residents of a Brooklyn apartment house, now converted back to its original form by middle-aged actress Vida (who unwittingly has an 18 year old Russian hideaway, Ashley, living in her closet), save for one holdout tenant, Edith, a retired straight-laced librarian whose vivaciously Bohemian twin sister Kat has unexpectedly moved in for the duration.

“A small eternity passed before her vision adapted, but gradually dozens and dozens of luminous pinpricks perforated the darkness overhead. She couldn’t tell if the stars were growing bigger and brighter or if her pupils had finally adjusted. Whatever was blooming on the ceiling didn’t need a leak for sustenance.” (P. 9)

With enormously narcissistic Vida enjoying renewed success thanks to her recent series of ads for the first female sexual enhancement pill, which have given her fame and a healthy bank balance, Edith and Kat hard at work on converting their mother’s legacy as a sexual advice columnist in the 1960s into an enduring legacy via the Smithsonian and Ashley convinced that her life will begin and flourish in the United States, none of these quite disparate women have any cause to expect the very worst to befall them.

But befall them it does in the form of a fast-growing luminescent green mushroom that each discover in turn in their respective homes, that son grows from perturbing curiosity to a crisis as its presence, and the spores it realises seemingly without number, leads to a neighbourhood-wide crisis.

Countless homes are burned and razed to the ground, people displaced, a fungal-initiated tide of refugees who lose everything they have ever owned and who have to grapple with what the loss of their homes, possessions and sense of place means to their identities.

Written with a wickedly air that amuses without once diluting the gravity of the nightmarish situation these four women find themselves in, Act of God asks us all to consider what we would do if our incessant clinging to hope brought us nothing but misery and pain.

Would we rise to the occasion and triumph over our adversity? Or would we be consumed by our travails, unable to see a way forward when our entire lives have been not simply upended but trampled into the ground by the 800 pound gorilla of negligent fate.


(cover image courtesy Pushkin Press)
(cover image courtesy Pushkin Press)


With a keen eye for the human condition, Clement carefully dissects the reactions of each of these four characters, rather accurately observing that, like many of us, their reactions are a messy mix of hope incipient hope and despair, veering between the two, sometimes on a daily basis.

There are no happy-ever-afters in Act of God; at least not wholly formed or perfectly enduring.

Rather as is the imperfect way of things, the book is about hope, hanging on the scraps that fall from the table of life in defiance of every rational impulse to the contrary.

And Vida, who struggles to keep her acting career afloat, Ashley who faces a possible return to Russia if things don’t work out, and careful Edith and bon vivant Kat are at various times caught between the possibility, slim though it is, that things will improve and a growing sense that life may have thrown them a curveball so impossible to return that they will be forever stuck in some sort of existential limbo.

“She couldn’t stand to think that life’s experiences, good and bad, died with the body, but she couldn’t bear to believe that dreams vanished too, those exquisite flights of reverie that never happened. All those experiences you can have for free. How could they burn and turn to ash? She would disappear one day, too, both her flesh and the woman she dreamed herself to be.” (P. 114)

Peppered with comic observations, apocalyptic undertones (neighbourhood-wide rather civilisation-ending; no less traumatic for that though)  and some sweetly-insightful moments, the book doesn’t promise that any of the women will emerge from this unscathed.

It’s this theme of loss and displacement, reportedly a feature of Clements’ other books, that suffuses Act of God, a rather gloomy read on one level but also buoyantly hopeful too, despite all evidence to the contrary in the lives of these four women and their neighbours and friends who are caught in their fungal end-of-the-world.

This is not the book to read if you are a rabid consumer of treacly happy ending or nice tied-up-with-a-bow endings; the version of life we get in Clement’s aptly-judged fifth novel, is gritty, realistic and faintly dystopian.

What it does give those of us who hang in through the tide of destructive adversity, and the occasional lack of sympathy for the characters who are not always lovable (but then who can blame them?), is a reassurance that hanging onto hope is not a fool’s errand.

It may not necessarily wave a magic wand and make everything better, and life may not ever or fully recover, but when you’ve lost everything else, it’s usually all you have left to hang onto and may, if you can hang in there long enough, give you somewhere new to start the business of living, albeit in a form utterly different from anything you knew before.

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