In her debut novel, Smoketown (Blind Eye Books), Tenea D. Johnson magically creates a verdant jungle from what was once a Kentucky holler. The city of Leiodare, formally Middlesboro, Kentucky, serves as this narrative’s anchor. Essentially an environmental side-effect of climate change, Leiodare is a combination of lush forest and futuristic modern technology. The story is set twenty-five years beyond the 21st century, and twenty-five years past the devastating effects of a virus outbreak believed to have been caused by birds. Ms. Johnson assembles an interesting flock of characters through which she narrates a wondrous exposition replete with magic, mystery, virtual reality and Ornithophobia.
The story opens with Anna Armour, a gifted artist whose talents lie not so much in her ability to draw visually stunning works, but more so in her gift for creating life. Her artistic prowess is bringing to life that which she imagines, shaped out of loss and desperation. Anna’s mother is killed when she is fourteen. Stricken by her mother’s death she creates a companion, a woman who leaves her as soon as she emerges whole from the stone she’s been sculpted. By the time Anna reconnects with her creation she is seventeen and the woman, calling herself Peru, becomes her lover. Eventually Peru leaves Anna for a second time.
In her search for Peru, Anna is lead to Leiodare. She waits in this foreign place, where birds have been banned, hoping to reunite with Peru. The city is surrounded by a protective electronic fence that keeps birds from entering. After the death of her mother and the disappearance of her lover, Anna spent many years wondering the surrounding forest where birds were a natural part of the tropical environment. In Leiodare Anna appears trapped in her own loss and with the absence of birds, trapped in the loss imposed by the city.
While Anna’s loss leads her to create a companion, the character Rory McClaren, a wealthy native of Leiodare and the sole survivor of his family who perished from the outbreak, purposely sequesters himself in a penthouse apartment, devoid of human contact. Afraid of contracting the avian virus that claimed the lives of his family, Rory retreats to an apartment equipped with the highest in technological advancement. Holograms and virtual imagery replace actual human interaction. He peers through plexi-glass windows that surround his self contained bubble onto a birdless Leiodare sky, the city itself a controlled environment.
Smoketown, on the surface, is a creative attempt at shaping a story around one of today’s most pressing concerns, climate change, and man’s timeless battle to control nature. There is a post-apocalyptic feel to the novel that stems from its underlying theme of loss and isolation. The tandem fuels what essentially is a story of intrigue and mystery. The novel unfolds to reveal a fate of devastation incurred by man’s relentless quest for technology and disregard for the environment. Ms. Johnson tackles the complex relationship between nature, humans, and technology, from a wonderfully imaginative and engaging perspective.
by Tenea D. Johnson Blind Eye Books Paperback, 9780978986155, 220pp. July 2011