Written by Peter Adamson — In this political thriller by former UNICEF official Peter Adamson, now available in a trade paperback original, the reunion of five college friends launches a project that none of them could have anticipated, that has every potential of imminently and disastrously going off the rails, and that has almost incomparably high stakes. Their motives are good, but the power structure won’t see it that way.
In the early 1960s, a group of Oxford University students were best friends. As Stephen Walsh, an unrepentant Marxist professor writes to the others 20 years later, ‘We’ve lost touch, the months drifting into years and the years into decades.’ He proposes a reunion, and leading up to it, you learn a bit about the others, all people of accomplishment in their varied spheres.
Michael Lowell, the only American, leads a World Health Organisation team on childhood immunisation; Seema Mir works in New York on a biography of the African American Hemings family; Toby Jenks is the hard-drinking creative director of an advertising agency who lives up to his job title; and Canadian Hélène Hevré is a physician, exhausted from the demands of tending patients within the minimalist health care system of Côte d’Ivoire.
Years ago, Michael asked Seema to marry him but she said no. He was a little too dull. Similarly, Toby had been in love with Hélène, but his fecklessness in the face of her serious purpose ended that. The relationships among these friends, but especially the two couples, are believable and sometimes painful because the characters are so engaging.
Conversation at the reunion is at first wide-ranging, a catch-up. Hélène especially shares her frustrations, prompting a debate over addressing underlying causes (Stephen) versus doing what’s possible today (Michael), using the example of immunisations. At the time the novel is set, each year five million children worldwide died from diseases preventable by vaccines costing pennies, a statistic that Michael and Hélène live with daily, but which stuns the others. Michael acknowledges that, compared to the logistical difficulties of universal (around 80 per cent) vaccination for these other diseases, smallpox eradication was relatively simple. Nor is it totally eradicated, as samples are stored in several known (and possible unknown) locales.
Toby, with his flair for the dramatic, responds to all this saying, ‘Seems to me, possums, the obvious thing to do here is to get hold of a little test tube of the stuff and threaten to blow bubbles with it in Times Square unless the world gets off its butt and immunises every last kiddie’ – a policy the international community had already agreed to but stalled on implementing.
A few months later, the friends reunite in New York. No one has forgotten Toby’s little joke, and it might actually happen, as Michael has a plan to use the smallpox virus to blackmail the US government into fulfilling its immunisation commitments.
Predictably, acceding to these mysterious demands is not the first thought the politicians will embrace. They will focus all available resources on finding out who is behind this little venture and stopping it. To them, it’s bioterrorism. Merely possessing the smallpox virus is a crime. If the US and other nations do not respond and the plotters carry out their threat to release the virus, there will be no end of bad consequences for people and governments. The success of Michael’s plan is far from guaranteed and depends on a great many things, one of which is the absolute silence of every one of them.
Nevertheless, they move forward. Toby crafts a powerful statement, secretly conveyed to top government officials, outlining the goal and the threat. It requires the US president to use these words in a public statement: ‘Twenty years ago, President John F Kennedy committed the United States to the goal of putting a man on the moon within a decade. Today, the United States commits itself to another great goal: a goal for our times; a goal to be achieved here on earth; the goal of immunising all of the world’s children against the major killer diseases of childhood.’
Toby’s words could give the US President his ‘Kennedy moment.’
Is now the time to confess my public health education? Of course I loved this book and the daring team of characters that took on the crimes of neglect and half-measures. But even people without that background will find it hugely satisfying.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars