If you were to tweak the words to that famous Five Man Electrical Band protest song, you’d have the gist of the latest Kenneth Oppel novel: Vine, vine, everywhere a vine, blocking out the scenery, breakin’ my mind.
As the story opens, a full day of rain has washed over Salt Spring Island and a new type of greenery has been left behind. The plants, however, are black and grow at an alarming rate, shooting off a pollen that all of the town’s residents are extremely allergic to – except for Anaya, Petra, and Seth. These local teens are unaffected; in fact, their own debilitating allergies have cleared up and been replaced by a clear complexion and a boost in physical strength. That said, they are experiencing some freaky side effects, including the growth of, respectively, fur, a tail, and feathery wings. Some are dealing with it better than others. “Boo hoo,” Petra says when Anaya complains about her thickening body hair. “I’m turning into a crocodile.”
While the story seems to start out as a thinly veiled metaphor for puberty, it quickly turns into a terrifying non-stop thriller. Vines grow up the sides of houses, push through windows, and squeeze people to death in their beds. The ground opens up and swallows everyone standing on the high-school football field.
The town tries everything: studying the plants, hacking at them with massive tools, spraying them with herbicides. But it may be that only Anaya, Petra, and Seth can outsmart the killer weeds because, in some mysterious way, they are connected to them.
For all his wild imagination, Oppel also understands relationships, be they young-teen friendships or the parent-child variety. Bloom is full of emotionally complicated subplots: Anaya and Petra used to be best friends but there was a betrayal, and Seth is a foster kid who has seemingly found a comfortable home with an older farming couple (think Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert), though he doesn’t know how they’ll react to his sprouting wings.
The uniqueness of Salt Spring Island and the interconnectedness of its inhabitants is part of the story: Anaya’s dad is (conveniently) a botanist who specializes in exotic species and her mom is a float-plane operator. Petra’s mom is an RCMP officer. These adults have their own responsibilities in helping the town get through this end-of-the-world catastrophe, which makes it all the more difficult for them to process what’s happening to their families and help their kids deal with these unexplained mutant awakenings. Oppel deftly handles the anxiety of children who are worried their parents won’t love the monster side of them and the story is surprising and touching in the way it presents familial relationships put to the test.
The finale of the novel poses a question that will likely be at the heart of this trilogy: Will the teens find a way to coexist with the plants and continue to live this strange version of their best lives – or will they fight the invasion, which may mean going back to their old, uninspired, allergic existence? Or will the choice be made for them?