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Originally published Friday, January 20, 2012 at 5:31 AM

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Book review

'The Flame Alphabet': flee parenthood, or die

Ben Marcus' new novel, "The Flame Alphabet," is a harrowing tale of parents who must separate from their children — or die. Marcus reads Thursday at the Rendezvous Restaurant's Grotto — sponsored by Seattle's University Book Store.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Ben Marcus

The author of "The Flame Alphabet" will read at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Rendezvous Restaurant's Grotto, 2322 Second Ave., Seattle. Sponsored by the University Book Store; free (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com).
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"We left on a school day, so Esther wouldn't see us."

From that opening line in Ben Marcus' new novel focusing on a mysterious pandemic, "The Flame Alphabet" (Knopf, 304 pp., $25.95), we are led to believe this is a story about abandonment. But Marcus defies us to make easy assumptions in this twisted tale of a family torn apart by an achingly personal disaster.

The narrator, Sam, tells us that a deadly, apparently airborne disease has taken hold over society, one in which the mere act of a child speaking brings adults to their knees in depleting sickness.

Bulletins go out over the radio airwaves suggesting it's best for adult survivors to pack up and flee. That means Sam and his wife Claire, who have a teen daughter named Esther, should go. So they plot to leave at a time when she won't be able to witness it.

All around Sam and Claire's community, children are being rounded up and quarantined by officials in protective suits who use nets and stun guns to suppress kids if need be. A secret exit means that Sam and his wife can spare themselves the excruciating sight of their daughter being carted off this way.

Scores of guilt-ridden parents, themselves emotionally stunned but ultimately resigned to the prospect of their families and civilization itself disintegrating, also gather their things and escape in a state of "disbelief walled off by illness." So toxic are Esther's breaths and words that they've already ruined her parents' physical appearance. Claire, we are told, has withered to the point that her hair looks like a wig and her skin like a mannequin's.

The scene-setting Marcus uses to pull the reader into this utterly repulsive new order sends chills down the spine. We are plunged into an underground world made up of adults in hiding and where odd radio transmissions emanate.

What is most disturbing about this story, of course, is the fact that the sound of children typically incites joy in their parents, not terror. Even worse for Sam and Claire, Esther, a bitterly snarky girl who they nevertheless want to coddle and impress, doesn't seem to understand how dangerous she's become, since she and the other minors are immune.

It is difficult to read about Sam yearning to keep his family intact and protect his daughter from the knowledge of her own poisonous speech, while striving for self-preservation. When his wife winds up disappearing, it only adds to his sense of dislocation.

Sam joins the fight among survivors to find a cure that makes disease-free speech possible again, working partly from the theory that "the alphabet as we knew it was too complex, soaked in meaning, stimulating the brain to produce a chemical that was obviously fatal." He wages this battle as a language researcher but also, more interestingly, as a tormented father.

There's something profound about Marcus' exploration of the power of language and the life-affirming nature of human breathing. He turns both of these normally positive ideas on their heads, but that only makes the sound of a loved-one's voice, the feel of a child's breath against the skin, seem that much more precious.

Tyrone Beason is a writer for Pacific Northwest Magazine.

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