My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Oil and Water has a little bit of everything: big ideas, well-drawn characters, complex family relationships, heroism, plot twists, mystery, comedy, and tragedy. It is the author’s debut novel after her publication of Six Sisters, a collection of novellas. A more ambitious and mature work than Six Sisters, this novel shows the author stretching her wings, taking audacious risks and giving voice to her passions. It is the kind of book that will stay with the reader for years afterwards, and which will likely only improve with re-reading.
I think most readers will learn something new from reading this book, whether it is about single-hulled oil tankers, epilepsy, political activism, or wildlife rescue. The research is extensive and serves the story well, and the characters are complex and appealing. The descriptions of the characters’ deaths could be breathtaking in their quiet horror, or in their spectacular flaming out. And I very much enjoyed very much the day-to-day interactions between the Tirabi kids for their own sakes. Though they were portrayed as genius eccentrics, they also came across as a realistically flawed family, barely holding it together after their parents’ car crash.
I am also very interested in green technologies, so I was intrigued by, but also skeptical of, the idea for the Thermo-Depolymerization Unit, the invention of father Marty Tirabi that converts trash into oil. A few quick google searches confirmed my suspicions, that this process is indeed possible but energy intensive, and the road to its commercialization is rocky. An MIT Technology Review article from 2003, Garbage into Oil mentions a pilot plant in Philadelphia, among others, any or all of which could have inspired the author’s research. A biomass company based on thermal depolymerization, Changing World Technologies, went bankrupt in 2009 and closed its MO-based refinery. I mention these real-world examples not to quibble but to applaud the author for making what might have otherwise been a boring footnote in the back of the business pages into an interesting story.
At times my personal sensibilities found the narrative to be a little too sprawling and messy: too many characters, extra subplots, and prose darlings were left alive while the body count mounted. For example, I still don’t know what the purpose was of the chapter in which Hart saves Stu’s life. It was well written and exciting, with vivid detail and fast pacing, but Stu is not an important character to the plot and we never see him again. I also found the subplot involving Robbie in Iraq to be a bit disconnected from and tacked on to the main story. And in the climactic scene near the end of the book in which many loose ends are tied up, I found myself thinking that the villain should really have read and taken to heart the evil overlord list, (particularly #7), because he just keeps talking, shooting people, and missing, until . . . YOW.
In a recent “Brain Pickings” column, Maria Popova quotes the great SF master Ursula LeGuin, saying that the best storytelling offers “an imagined but persuasive alternative reality, to dislodge my mind, and so the reader’s mind, from the lazy, timorous habit of thinking that the way we live now is the only way people can live. It is that inertia that allows the institutions of injustice to continue unquestioned.”
PJ Lazos writes in that honorable tradition of speculative fiction here, powerfully using her own imagination to expand the scope of the possible. There is easily enough material here for more than one novel. I hope there’s a sequel.