In this novel featuring all the classic catastrophes of climate change but not the usual cause, the hand of God and the human hand are difficult to tell apart. Assigning responsibility is almost impossible here, and violence in the name of justice is all too common. Mazzy, a soldier in the Army, is deeply complicit — in her dealings with the U.S. government no less than with the fundamentalists. Still, the novel doesn’t seem to treat her actions as punishable crimes. It closes with a feast of golden berries the size of plums, picked by Ava Lynn, Mazzy’s lost sister. The ending doesn’t fully acquit Mazzy, but it does look like another beginning.
The scenes of Mazzy surrounded by the trappings of power—including a number of actors who have sought to curry favor with the breakaway regime—take on an especially stark tone, as she attempts to keep her loved ones safe without losing her soul in the process. But it also reveals one of 40’s more frustrating elements...'Mama thought I was too bright and headstrong for the military,' Mazzy recalls early in the novel, but the version of her that we see for much of the book feels less proactive than reactive ... tonally, it doesn’t always come together; for me, the most memorable scenes in 40 were when Heathcock ratcheted things up to an operatic level—that early moment with the lions, say, or the way several plot threads converge at its conclusion. But in trying to split the difference between a psychological study of the trappings of power and an almost allegorical account of where one nation might be headed, 40 doesn’t make as much of an impact as it could.