I’ve always had a weakness for medical thrillers. Back in high school, I went through a Robin Cook phase, and I’m not even embarrassed to admit that to you all. When I picked up PARASITE on one of my frequent trips to the bookstore, I was immediately drawn to the concept of medical parasites. Although I didn’t enjoy Mira Grant’s Newsflesh Trilogy, I decided to buy it anyway. PARASITE turned out to be the best second chance I ever gave an author.
After a car accident nearly killed her, Sally was reliant on life support. But just as her family were preparing to turn the machines off, Sal opened her eyes and sat up. The genetically modified tapeworm secreting tailored medication, vitamins and minerals in her gut had somehow brought her from a coma to consciousness. Sally Mitchell owes her life to the SymboGen Intestinal Bodyguard™.
Although she no longer remembers being Sally, Sal learns to walk, talk, eat and clothe herself all over again. Thanks to the Intestinal Bodyguard™, she has a second chance at life.
Sal is the first person whose implant delivered her from a coma. Now that she represents the enormous potential of the Intestinal Bodyguard™ Sal’s body has become highly valuable to the biggest company in the world… and SymboGen won’t let her forget it.
Sal isn’t stupid. She knows that SymboGen track her every move – she is simply too important for them to lose track of. Since her living memory only extends back six years, and given that she’d be dead without her tapeworm, she’s not really in a position to argue. But that doesn’t mean she trusts SymboGen, who have never really been forthcoming about why, exactly, her implant saved her.
At first, it’s a freak incident. A little girl in a shopping centre suddenly goes slack-jawed and loose-limbed, and even her mother’s frantic sobs can’t bring her back to reality. She seems to be sleepwalking, in a slumber so deep it ultimately consumes her. But then there’s another incident, and the “sleepwalker” became violent, lashing out at passers-by who got in his way. Another incident, and then another, until the “sleeping sickness” becomes a worldwide concern.
Nobody can figure out what’s caused it – except that all of the sufferers have SymboGen implants.
Sometimes humanity is the reason we can’t have nice things.
Sal is such a great character; she’s strong-willed and observant, shrewd, kind and caring. She also represents a fascinating dichotomy – she has an adult understanding of her life, and is treated as an adult by those around her, but can only remember being alive for six years. She is at once mature and naïve, and always dependent on those around her. With a medical doctor for a father, a sceptical parasitologist as a boyfriend, and the CEO of SymboGen as her protector, Sal is at the very epicentre of the sleeping sickness conspiracy. The world at large knows that it’s related to the implant, but Sal’s boyfriend Nathan suspects the company is withholding critical information from the medical community. Uniquely positioned to obtain this information, Sal begins to feel the pressure from all sides. And underneath it all, she’s worried. After all, Sal has an implant too…
Almost unintentionally, PARASITE raises some interesting ethical issues. If you wake up one day and don’t remember who you are, are you someone entirely new? Is there such a thing as cellular memory, and if there isn’t, do you have a right to the relationships and achievements of the person you don’t remember being? On the other hand, SymboGen has much to answer for. There’s no denying the fact their genetically modified Intestinal Bodyguards™ are evidence that the company has no qualms about playing God. But if something that hurts the few can truly benefit the many, is it right to withhold information about its potential danger?
I think what I found most interesting was the exploration of the ethics of the creators of the Intestinal Bodyguard™. A modified tapeworm spliced with the DNA of other organisms, D. Symbogenesis is the brainchild of three parasitologists. Pioneering the idea that parasites are our friends, Dr Steven Banks has fronted up SymboGen since the implant boomed. His mentality is gradually revealed throughout the novel in snippets of his interview entitled “King of the Worms”, published in Rolling Stone. Dr Cale was directly responsible for the final incarnation of the implant. She reveals her thoughts in excerpts of “Can of Worms”, her unpublished autobiography, where she dishes on the truth behind the world’s most important parasite. And the third doctor? Well. His thoughts come in the form of a suicide note.
“If you believed that D. Symbogenesis was the simple, easily controlled organism SymoGen described in their press releases and paperwork, you have been sold a bottle of snake oil.”
PARASITE is the best thriller I’ve read this year. This is mostly due to the fact that it was absolutely nothing like I expected it to be. I was waiting for it to eventually morph into a zombie novel, but it didn’t even come close.
The concept of people purposely ingesting parasites is a serious skin-crawler, and would probably have made for an interesting book by itself. But combined with cleverly-paced revelations, genre-melding narrative and characters that you can never quite trust, and you’ve got an unpredictable, completely engrossing page-turner.
Regular readers will not be surprised to know that I found PARASITE at Pulp Fiction. Did you know Pulp Fiction supply e-books too? Buy your e-copy of Parasite from Pulp Fiction here, for $11.99, and support my favourite bookstore.
Are you, like me, oddly fascinated by parasites? You’re weird. But we’re in this together. Check out Caustic Soda’s podcast episode on parasites. Be warned, though – Caustic Soda are not for the faint-hearted!