Book Review: The Rending and The Nest by Kaethe Schwehn

It wasn’t fire or ice. Wasn’t a virus or global warming or a meteor. Wasn’t an atomic bomb or a tsunami or a sulfurous-smelling ape. It was a Rending, a split. Ninety-five percent of the earth’s population and the vast majority of the animals, food and goods—gone. We were left with each other and the Piles. Later, the Babies. And we were left without an explanation.

The Rending and The Nest begins in a post-apocalyptic world where the few people who remain are forced to form small communities nearest the giant Piles—mountains of left-over items they must re-purpose for survival. Zion is one such community and the story follows Mira and the other members of her group as they form a makeshift family and cobble together some form of existence.

Most of the people is Zion came there alone, or with only one companion from Before, having lost all of their family and friends to the Rending—an as yet unsolved phenomena which disappeared an enormous portion of the population and natural supplies from Earth. Each week the Zionists meet to discuss matters of importance in their community and to speculate on the cause of the Rending and the purpose of why they remain.

We were rabid for theories in the first year after the Rending, desperate to land on a story that could explain the sudden absence of most of the world’s population, the redistribution of goods and objects into towering Piles, and the ghost fruit. We wanted to know why we were constantly suffocated by gray sky, why the temperature hovered between fifty and sixty degrees, why precipitation had ceased and been replaced by periodic saturation of the earth from sources unknown. Toward the end of the second year we added the lack of children to the mix. We considered terrorism, drugs sent through pipes and vents, an astronomical event, a compression or expansion of time. We wondered if they absent people has been taken elsewhere and if they were being kept.

The remainder of their time is spent on various jobs of their choosing, which for Mira means climbing the Piles in search of necessities while for her friend Lana it means entertaining the desires of the men. When Lana falls pregnant, the story takes an unusual turn and we begin to understand just how different this new world is.

We called the event the Rending after the moment when Jesus died. The curtain torn. The moment of big death, life on the other side not yet known. And we called it the Rending for the way it made us feel afterward: torn, frayed, broken.

But watching Lana I saw that birth was the first Rending, a splitting and tearing of the fibers of life and death. The body itself inhabited by forces beyond the body.

Maybe Lana’s body was a version of the tomb. Maybe when this life emerged, when we held it, things would be better. Maybe the birth of this baby would feel like a kind of resurrection.

Lana’s Baby is a doll, inhumane and immovable as the world they inhabit, forcing her and the rest of Zion to find meaning behind this development as the other women quickly follow suit— birthing objects with such uniqueness and unknown origin.

Sometimes I wondered if our new world was an area and this was a version of gladiators. If you take away 95 percent of the world, will the pain kill off the other 4 percent? Will they kill each other out of fear and loneliness?

When a visitor comes to Zion and though he is not the first, he brings with him news that unsettles the order of things. Like ripples in a still lake, change spreads across Zion, and Mira must reconcile her own personal torment with the effect this news has on Lana. This visitor is named Michael and he tells the Zionists about his community, the Zoo, which is a thing borne of the Rending and an example the various ways in which the remaining population copes with the drastic re-imagining if their world.

In many ways the Zoo was exactly as Michael had explained. There were Inhabitants and there were Watchers. The gifts of food and water and supplies that the Watchers provided kept the Inhabitants alive. But the Watchers didn’t just watch to be entertained and though the Inhabitants might have been free to leave on a practical level, I also knew now that something held them where they were.

What follows is a series of lessons in understanding: first of the different ways the new world affects each person and second of the possible meaning behind the Babies and the ways our loved ones remain with us, no matter the circumstances.

The Rending and The Nest is a welcome addition to the literary end-of-the-world genre, taking a fresh look at the capacity for human survival in a myriad of unfamiliar circumstances. What remains the same are the emotions, the expression of love and rage, that are necessary for coming to terms with and settling into a new world order. As a result we find relatable content in some of the most unfathomable scenarios.

I had understood this promise of resurrection as a constant divine provision of gold light, signals of new life at precisely the right times, comfort at every turn. But it was the paying attention that mattered. In the end, looking closely, without judgement of expectation is one of the few things we can control, and it is the one act that reveals the heart of the world, regardless of whether that world is imbued with divinity or not.

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A review copy of this title was provided by Bloomsbury Publishing.

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