‘The Blondes’ imagines a peculiar human outbreak

Heather Scott Partington

In Emily Schultz’s The Blondes, the end is near, and it’s coming at the hands of the flaxen-haired. A Canadian grad student, pregnant by her thesis advisor, narrates this sci-fi thriller, which floats back and forth from the time before the pandemic—when the narrator gives little thought to an affair with her professor—to after the outbreak, when she ends up bald, holed up in her former lover’s cottage with his wife, incubating a child she’s pretty sure she doesn’t want.

“You,” she says to her baby, “strange seven pounds of other.” This eerie tale is narrated by the main character to her growing child: a tale for the end of the world, or perhaps its last days, if things begin to improve.

The Blondes skates a line between irony and seriousness. This is a tale about infection, but it’s also a story about blonde, idealized women who go nuts, attack those around them without provocation and stumble away. Schultz gets in her digs at the unattainable standards of female beauty. She also touches on issues of deeply rooted misogyny and ideas about ancient diseases that made women bold and unpredictable. This comes directly through her narrator’s thoughts. “All of us living with a disease that affects only girls and women?” she asks. “Hysteria is so bang-on.”

Like any good outbreak thriller, The Blondes starts with seemingly random attacks that become increasingly common. The disease, eventually named Siphonaptera Human Virus (SHV), affects both bleach and natural blondes. “No men have been affected yet by what has been called, by some, the Blonde Fury,” says a news report. “Others have called it Gold Fever, Suicide Blondes or California Rabies. But whatever its name, it is serious.” Our narrator witnesses a blonde woman throwing a girl onto the subway tracks, unprovoked. Then she watches a group of beautiful, fair-haired stewardesses tear through JFK in a bloody rage.

While Schultz’s tongue is firmly in her cheek in The Blondes, these female zombies illuminate parallels between this alternate reality and our own. It doesn’t take long for post-outbreak fear to set in. Citizens—men, actually—are “advised to be wary … of women with raised voices, acting violently.” Schultz shows us that it doesn’t take much to break down ideas of privacy, and throw an entire sex under the bus.

Three stars

The Blondes By Emily Schultz, $25.

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