Prologues are designed to pull readers into novels by presenting just enough of an event, usually a catastrophe, to make them crave answers. Prologues are also sometimes employed to compensate for weak stories, propelling us to read on hopefully, even when the traditional narrative devices of goal and conflict are lacking. Sadly, such is the case with The World Without Us.
Though not presented as a prologue, the opening chapter of B.C. author Robin Stevenson’s latest book functions as just such a device: two teens stand at night on the edge of a perilously high bridge, one, Jeremy, trying to convince the other, Melody, to jump as part of an apparent suicide pact. Melody, terrified, clings to the bridge begging Jeremy to stop. He jumps, nonetheless, leaving Melody peering into the abyss.
How did this happen? How did they come to this?
Jeremy is a morose pseudo intellectual who reads Camus and is struggling with un-admitted survivor’s guilt over the accidental death of his little brother while under his care. Melody is a thoughtful but impressionable girl who falls for Jeremy as he rationalizes his drift toward suicide. Though terribly injured, Jeremy actually survives, and over the next 200 pages the reader endures two equally weak storylines. The first, told in flashbacks, details how the kids moped and meandered their way to the suicide pact, while the second deals with how they reconcile their feelings in the aftermath.
In neither storyline do the characters face a meaningful obstacle to a tangible goal. The only real goal either has is to relieve their feelings of guilt (Melody’s is for playing along with the pact), but the pursuit of that is not manifested in a way that makes for interesting reading. By halfway through the novel, the drive of the opening chapter is spent.
Injected with heavy-handed thematic investigations of suicide, capital punishment, reincarnation, and faith, The World Without Us is frustrating and ultimately lifeless.