Since I first heard the premise of Emily Schultz’s novel, The Blondes (Doubleday Canada, 2012), I’ve been eager to read it. Set in a world much like ours, but one in which a virus has begun to spread. Its victims become disoriented, clumsy, and then savage, reacting violently to everything around them until they kill themselves or whoever they’re closest to.
The unique factor: all the victims of this virus are blonde women.
Our protagonist and narrator is Hazel Hayes, a twenty-something recent arrival to New York, working on her Master’s thesis. Her thesis topic is women, the way they look, and the way women think they look. Hazel has also just discovered that she is pregnant.
The story is told by Hazel, speaking to her unborn daughter, in the late stages of her pregnancy. At this point she is holed up in a cabin in Ontario with an unexpected partner. We go back and forth between New York and this cabin as Hazel fills the baby, and us, in on the details.
The idea of the virus is fascinating. I can’t at all speak to the scientific truth of anything offered in the novel but the fear and panic and irrationality that begins to afflict those around Hazel feels genuine. You have only to recall the anthrax scares of 2001 or the more recent H1N1 virus or the stories of SARS among hospital workers to feel like Schultz’ fiction could happen. There is much about the virus within the world of the novel that is left unanswered. It only affects blonde women but this includes women who have dyed their hair. Hazel, a natural redhead, remains unsure if she is susceptible. The virus may be spread by fleas or animals. It appears to be transmitted by blood, similar to rabies. What we aren’t told reflects the uncertainty that exists in the reality of the novel. No one really knows and that’s where much of the fear comes from.
Blonde women have held a certain type of power for the last hundred years. They are lauded, coveted, fetishized, and hated. The Blondes gives these women a completely different kind of power, something they fear and have no control over, but is changing the face of the world.
Along these lines the details that surround Hazel in this world of blonde fury are great. Advertisements, stories, and even her own thesis point out to us the power of the blonde, something that doesn’t diminish even when those same blondes are brutally killing people.
My main issue with the novel was Hazel herself. Hazel never does anything. Things happen to Hazel. Much of the action of the novel revolves around Hazel’s attempt to make it across the Canada/U.S. border and return to Toronto. She’s pregnant and doesn’t want to be and procurring an abortion during this blonde panic turns out to be harder than she thought. Hazel makes very few decisions, she simply reacts to those around her – whether that’s a blonde woman gone mad or the wife of her child’s father. She’s neither hugely likeable or unlikeable. That is, until close to the end when she performs one great act of betrayal that is never explained. While she expresses some regret, it seems disingenuous, as though she quickly has more important things to think about.
Even the ending of the novel comes about through no action of Hazel’s own. While she remains in the cabin, speaking to an unborn baby, her salvation appears. It felt like a classic deus ex machina and at that point, I didn’t much care what happened to her.
With a better, more engaged protagonist, I think The Blondes could have really had something to it. As it is, it’s more of a glorified zombie novel. And we have lots of those already.