Clean Air


By Sarah Blake

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$22.99 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around January 31, 2023. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

In this postapocalyptic story of mystery, suspense, grief, and loss, a girl processes her mother’s death as a serial killer’s presence makes her already dangerous world even more deadly.
The climate apocalypse has come and gone, and in the end it wasn't the temperature climbing or the waters rising. It was the trees. They created enough pollen to render the air unbreathable, and the world became overgrown. In the decades since, humanity has rebuilt, and Izabel has grown used to the airtight domes that now contain her life.  She tries hard to be satisfied with this safe, prosperous new world, but instead she just feels stuck. And then the tranquility of her town is shattered. Someone—a serial killer—starts slashing through the domes at night, exposing people to the deadly pollen. At the same time, her young daughter Cami begins sleep-talking, having whole conversations about the murders that she doesn't remember after she wakes. Izabel becomes fixated on the killer, on both tracking him down and understanding him. What could compel someone to take so many lives after years dedicated to sheer survival, with society finally flourishing again?

Suspenseful and startling, but also poetic and written with a wry, observant humor, this “skillful blend of postapocalyptic science fiction, supernatural murder mystery, and domestic drama is unexpected and entirely engrossing” (Publishers Weekly).


Dear Cami,

We couldn't breathe the air. To some people it seemed quick, sudden even. To some it seemed gradual. In hindsight, everyone said the signs were there. It was in the trees, the pollen. It happened in spring. And while spring doesn't happen at the same time everywhere—we saw it happen one place first, and then another, and another—how could we have stopped it? What I'm trying to say is, some people, most people's response to catastrophe, as it approaches, is muted. That was ten years ago: the Turning. It killed more than half of the world's population. And the resulting world, the world we built from scratch, it's not how I was taught a postapocalyptic world would be. It presents itself like a gift.

    Chapter One

Izabel moved through her morning routine. She poured Cami's juice into a sippy cup. It was "spill-proof," but that didn't mean it didn't leak. Izabel wedged it beside containers of snacks in Cami's lunchbox. She zipped it up and put it in Cami's backpack, which had flaps of fabric on the side to look like elephant ears. The trunk was embroidered on the front. Black plastic eyes had been sewn in until they were flush.

Then the shower turned off. The water stopped running through the pipes in the concrete slab beneath her. She knew Kaito was patting himself down with a towel, but she couldn't hear that. Instead she heard the cars outside. One of her neighbors was playing music. Sometimes she felt as if she could hear every neighbor through their plastic walls.

Kaito would be stepping out of the bedroom soon. If she timed it right, the three of them would be in the kitchen together as they got ready for the day. Not that she didn't want to be alone with Cami, only that she preferred not to be.

She broke off an oversized banana, cut it in half, and left it where Cami sat at the island. Then she poured soy milk into a bottle and took it with her into Cami's room.

"Good morning, honey," Izabel said.

Cami didn't move.

"Wake up, wake up, wake up." This time she put her hand on Cami's leg.

Cami's brow furrowed.

"I have your milk. Do you want your milk?"

Cami's eyes popped open and then closed again, and then she rolled them open—with great effort it seemed—and the whites of her eyes were slightly pink.

"Good morning, mi amorcito."

"Hi, Mommy."

Izabel handed her the bottle of milk. She was four, but she insisted on bottles still. And Izabel couldn't bring herself to care.

Cami sat up and drank, eyes closed again.

When Izabel tried to leave, Cami pulled at her. So Izabel turned her body to face the same direction as Cami, and she let Cami lean back into her. It was a lovely, peaceful moment. One she got to have every morning. She chided herself for spending it, mostly, thinking of what she had to do next.

She pulled herself away. "We don't want to be late." She went to the bins of Cami's clothes and picked out an outfit for the day.

Cami held out the empty bottle.

"Are you done with it?"

Cami nodded, awake now, alert, a little animal.

"Then you know what to do with it. You know where it goes."

Cami ran out of the room and put the bottle by the kitchen sink.

"What's next?" Izabel asked, following her.

"Teeth brushing!"

"Good morning," Kaito said, stepping into the kitchen.

"Daddy!" Cami ran into his arms, and he scooped her up and kissed her twice on the cheek.

"Better go brush your teeth," he said.

In the bathroom, Izabel put toothpaste on both of their toothbrushes as Cami peed in the toilet.

"Can you wipe yourself? Do you know what to do next?"

"I know!"

Izabel brushed her teeth while she watched Cami. She wiped herself with a nearly normal amount of toilet paper. She flushed the toilet. She washed her hands. She took the toothbrush from the cup.

"Did you wet this?"

"Uh-huh," Izabel said, toothbrush in her mouth.

And then Cami brushed her teeth and spat. For a minute, you could be convinced that she could take care of herself, that she wouldn't start crying when she couldn't get the Velcro on her shoes to line up exactly.

Back in the kitchen, Cami picked up her banana and held it over her head and said it was the moon both ways.

"What do you mean?" Kaito asked.

"Full moon," she said, turning the sliced face of it at him, perfectly round and dimpled with color like any good asteroid-blemished surface. "And . . ." She turned it so the arc of it was above her. "And . . ."

"Crescent," he said.

"Crescent moon!" she said.

"Very good," Izabel said, taking the banana from her, pulling down the peel, and handing it back. "Now you better eat."

Cami and Kaito looked at each other and Izabel knew it was some sort of acknowledgment that Izabel was the serious one in the house. But she didn't know if that were true. Yes, she was serious now, with them, but she didn't know if she would have been, if she wanted to be, if she'd started this way.

When Cami was done with her banana, Izabel took her to get dressed. Cami wanted to pick out her own outfit and Izabel reminded her that every night she asked her if she wanted to put out clothes for the next day.

"But I don't know what I want to wear then. That's a different day."

"I know—so this is how it works. For now."

"This doesn't match with my mask."

"Everything matches with your mask. That's how masks work."

"It's not denim, Mom!"

Izabel let out a single giant laugh and then started laughing so hard she could feel tears in her eyes. "Where did you learn that?"

"It was on one of your shows."

"It was?"

Cami nodded.

Kaito came in the room. "Are you two okay?"

Izabel couldn't stop laughing. Her sides were hurting now.

"Mommy thinks I told a joke."

"But you didn't?"

Cami shook her head.

Kaito kneeled at Cami's feet and started to dress her.

"I told her this outfit doesn't match my mask."

"You're right—that doesn't sound very funny."

Izabel was getting her breath back. "I said her mask matches everything!"

"That's true," Kaito said.

"And then Cami said, 'It's not denim!'"

Kaito smiled at Izabel.

"See. Daddy knows it's not funny."

"It's a little funny," Kaito said.

"Maybe you had to be there." Izabel felt herself getting annoyed.

"He was here," Cami said.

"Not in the room," Izabel said. "It's an expression."

Kaito nodded.

Cami looked satisfied with that. She always looked to him for the final say on a matter.

"Shoes next!" Cami yelled, and she ran out of the room.

Izabel wanted to scold Kaito for not backing her up better, for not laughing, for not telling Cami to trust what her mother says. But then he stood up and kissed Izabel on the forehead. He was sweet. He was kind. She didn't want to have a fight over a feeling she couldn't quite articulate.

At the front doors, Cami had put her shoes on the wrong feet. Izabel switched them. Next her coat went on. Then her backpack. Then her mask, down around her neck for now.

"Are we early?"

"A little," Izabel said. "Is it joke time?"

Cami nodded.

Izabel brought out her tablet and opened a kids' app that had a daily joke on its main page. "What color do cats like?"



Cami laughed. "I get it."

"Yeah, you do."

The doorbell went off. Izabel put Cami's mask up, around her ears, under her eyes, pinched it over the bridge of her nose. She checked it, following its black border over her cheekbones. The emerald green covered her cheeks and continued down below her jaw. A small black circle of plastic sat to the left side of her mouth. From her eyes, she could tell Cami was smiling. Izabel hugged her.

"Have a great day at school," Izabel said. And Kaito waved from the kitchen, where he was making coffee.

Izabel pressed a button on the wall and the first set of double doors opened. Cami went through them. As soon as they closed behind her, the second set of double doors opened, and she went out those and ran to the car. There was a burst of air in the small room, a quick blast to clean it out, a small safeguard, keeping one batch of air from another. It obscured Cami for a second, but Izabel was used to that. She watched her every morning like this. As tired as she was of nearly every moment of her life, some parts still filled her with fear. Cami getting to a car was one of them.

Cami pressed a button on the car and the door opened for her. She got in, the door closed, and off the car went. Izabel would get an alert on her tablet when the school checked her in.

At this point, she would usually eat breakfast with Kaito before his workday started, but she didn't want to talk to him right now. She knew she'd start a fight. Neither of them needed that.

She went to the bathroom and sat on the toilet and peed and looked around on her tablet. She opened her favorite app. It ran news articles and newsletters and email blasts that went out years before the Turning. She could lose herself for hours in the news of the past. When humans thrived—too well. When we were drinking all the clean water. When we traveled so often we ripped holes in the ozone. When we couldn't see another way. When we melted the ice caps and debated the commodification of natural resources and thought we would need seed stores.

She usually didn't remember which year was which. Little memories across her childhood of local and global traumas that she couldn't sort chronologically. Today, legs hard against the toilet seat, she tapped on 2020. The summary popped up. A bad year. A global pandemic. Everyone wearing masks then, too. She was eight years old. Her mother was alive. They were happy.

She tapped on Most Popular. An article came up about the garden eels in an aquarium in Tokyo. It was becoming hard to monitor their health. They hid from their keepers. They had grown fearful of humans as the aquariums sat empty during quarantine.

In an attempt to make them more comfortable, to make them betray their instincts, they were arranging a festival. For three days people could call in and video-chat with the eels. They were going to set up five screens in front of their tank. There were rules. You couldn't be loud or obnoxious. They wanted smiles and waves and soft conversation.

Izabel's tablet dinged that Cami was checked in at school. She sighed. She felt something in her chest drop, like a ball, a short but satisfying distance. She put the tablet on the floor, wiped herself, pulled up her pants, washed her hands, and picked up the tablet again. It wasn't even 9 a.m. Kaito would still be in the kitchen.

She decided that she'd rush out, kiss him on the cheek, and go to the mall. She didn't know what she would do there, but it was better than staying home. The days dragged on until Cami came back. And when Kaito came out of his office for lunch or for a break, she felt like he was critical of how she used her time, even though he didn't say it, even though he insisted he didn't think about her like that.

But she was critical of herself in that way. Even if she cleaned everything, got all the laundry done, responded to emails, ordered the groceries, scheduled dentist appointments. Even then, she wondered what she was doing inside her perfect life, where she was perfectly comfortable, and she'd survived the Turning, and she'd fallen in love, and the world had been taken back, some of it, and they'd had a child, and their child flourished, and they wanted for nothing, and no one was homeless, and no one was hungry, and what they had learned was that anything could be accomplished, if it were for few enough people.

She got dressed and went into the kitchen. Kissing Kaito's cheek felt better than she wanted to admit. His skin was smooth and smelled good, from an aftershave he liked, something he picked out himself. It made her feel special that he used it, that he shaved, because he never had to see anyone but her.

She could feel her unhappiness with him wane. And it would come back, too. She knew that.

She pressed the button on the wall that called for a car. She looked back at him over her shoulder, and they smiled at each other as if they would have sex if she were staying. It was an easy enough smile to give when they both knew they didn't have to deliver.

She looked back at the panel on the wall that called the cars and opened the doors. It also had the display for the air filtration system. She looked at this snapshot so often she hardly saw the specifics of it anymore, only that everything was green and well. All the filters were functioning properly. There were no errors in the system. But today she saw that the air quality was at 98 percent.

"Kaito," she said. "The air quality is at ninety-eight percent."


"Isn't it usually at ninety-nine percent? Or one hundred percent?"

"There are no errors?"


"Then I guess ninety-eight percent is fine."

"I guess so," she said.

    Chapter Two

That night, the alarm went off all through the plastic dome. The lights went on. Something had failed. Probably something small, but when Izabel woke, the back of her throat already hurt.

She heard Kaito moving through the house, having woken before her, quicker to gain his bearings. He came back into their room with her mask. His was on.

As soon as she'd taken the mask from his fingers, he was off to Cami's room with her small mask, and Izabel followed.

Cami was still asleep.

Kaito put the mask over Cami's face, moving her black hair to put the straps around her ears. Izabel looked out the sheer plastic window of Cami's room. No other houses were lit up like theirs.

Izabel coughed, which made Kaito move faster. He picked up Cami in his arms and they rushed to the front of the house. Izabel pressed a button on the wall and a thick plastic sheet dropped down, ruffled and bent. She pulled it to the floor, straightening it, making sure it reached. And then, carefully, she began to seal it around the edges. She had to push some of Cami's toys out of the way.

While she did this, Kaito turned on the small air filtration unit that was strong enough for the new, small room they'd created. He also tried to wake Cami. The unit turned green to show that the air was safe.

A voice came through the intercom system. "A mobile unit is two minutes away for repairs. An ambulance is on the way as a precaution. Have you all reached the safe room?"

"Yes," Izabel said. She watched Kaito trying gently to wake Cami.

"I can cancel the ambulance if it's not necessary. Is it necessary?"

"I don't know."

"Excuse me. Can you speak up?"

"I don't know!" Izabel took off her mask and put her face close to Cami's. She was warm and her skin was its normal color and her chest was moving up and down with her breath, though Izabel couldn't feel it through her mask. Cami looked like a sleeping princess with her black hair against her emerald green mask, a princess from a strange new kingdom.

"We need the ambulance," Kaito said.

"Of course," said the voice.

Izabel put her mask back on. They waited for the sound of the sirens to come and replace the sound of the alarm.

"Are you okay?" she asked Kaito.

He nodded. "My throat hurts."

"Mine, too."

Kaito reached down and ran his hand over Cami's head.

"Do you think she could be sleeping through this?" Izabel asked, knowing it was a stupid question.

They could hear the sirens now.

"We should clean up this space," Kaito said.

And it was true. They'd gotten too comfortable. What was supposed to be their safe room was filled with toys, shoeboxes of knickknacks, old diaper boxes filled with art supplies.

The doorbell went off when the ambulance pulled into the spot outside their house, and then they heard the EMTs come inside.

"Masks on!" they shouted. "Confirm."

"Masks are on!" Izabel yelled back.

The EMTs unsealed the room, put Cami on a spine board, and connected her mask to an oxygen tank. Izabel and Kaito followed them out of the house, through the double set of doors, passing the small robot that was already repairing the air filtration system.

The ambulance was so covered in pollen it was yellow. It was early April and peak pollination for cedar, elm, and willow.

"Bad night?" Kaito asked once they were inside.

"The count is high," one of the EMTs said. His nametag read ben. He touched a screen inside the ambulance and told it to return to the hospital.

The other EMT's nametag read uzair. He set to work putting sensors all over Cami. Screens began to show her pulse and her oxygen level.

A green light went on in the ambulance that meant it was safe to take off their masks, but before they could raise their hands to their faces, Uzair said, "We'd ask you leave those on given the level of exposure you've already had tonight."

Izabel and Kaito nodded.

Finally Ben said something about Cami. "We see this a lot in children. They're the most affected."

"But they're usually fine," Uzair added. "We'll know more at the hospital."

And they weren't far. Izabel could make it out faintly through the yellowed windshield. There was a button to clean the windows, but it was behind the EMTs.

Kaito took Cami's hand, which made Izabel want to touch her. She put her hand on Cami's foot and watched Cami's eyes. They were still. She wasn't dreaming. Izabel remembered how, as an infant, Cami laughed more often in her sleep than at any silly thing Izabel did. And Izabel wondered if Cami's body was only practicing this new behavior or if Cami had figured out something truly funny in the dream. Like Izabel slipping and falling. Like Izabel choking on a piece of corn.

Izabel didn't like going to the hospital, because of all the time she'd spent there with her mother. She'd spent even more time there during the Turning, but that's when everyone lived at the hospital—everyone who survived—and it didn't feel like a hospital then, but an elaborate fallout shelter, with taped-over windows and doors and the constant buzzing of filters and generators.

Visiting the hospital now was much more like when she'd been there with her mother. When her mother was dying. The halls were clean and carts of medicine and equipment lingered by doorways, and nurses and doctors popped in and out of rooms, and all the lights were on.

At the hospital they wheeled Cami's bed into a room and told Izabel and Kaito that a nurse would be with them shortly. Izabel couldn't believe they would leave them alone with an unresponsive child. She thought a doctor would be waiting at the door to rush in with them, like in old episodes of ER and Grey's Anatomy when an accident had been called in ahead of the ambulance. But then, maybe, if they weren't worried, she shouldn't be either.

Kaito got up and began to examine her. Before the Turning he'd been a doctor, a surgeon, with the da Vinci Surgical System. He still got called in, on rare occasions, to remove a prostate or uterus. But now they needed someone with his skills for the robots.

He got an otoscope off the wall and checked her pupils. There was such an ease in his wrist as he flicked the light into each eye.

When Izabel's mother was dying, Izabel didn't spend every moment at her bedside. Her mother slept often, and Izabel roamed the halls and sat with people in the ER, seeing how the injuries were calculated and weighed against each other. The wheezing child got taken first, then the boy holding a cut on his eyebrow, then the man with his head between his knees.

Izabel was nineteen and studying to be a nurse at college. She had taken the semester off to be with her mother, even though she didn't know what that meant at the time. She thought it meant saving her. But she knew now: it meant creating months of memories that she could look back on with guilt.

A nurse came in. Clipped to his shirt was his hospital ID, with his picture and his name, luis. He made a funny face at Kaito, and Kaito put the otoscope back on the wall. "I used to work here," Kaito said, staying next to Cami.

"Oh, okay," Luis said. "I'll be your nurse tonight. The doctor's coming in to check on your daughter soon, and I'm going to take some blood and then check you two out."

Luis took Cami's hand gently and extended her arm. He tied a band of rubber high around it. Izabel thought she saw a change in her veins, her soft skin. Luis tapped a finger on the crease of Cami's elbow and then wiped it with alcohol. Izabel wanted to stop him but she couldn't say why.

He put the needle in and the little tube that ran to the vial turned red and then the vial filled. He popped the vial out and popped in a second vial. Izabel imagined the hell Cami would've been giving them all if she was awake.

As Luis stuck stickers on the vials, he gestured at Izabel. "Is this correct?" he asked.

Each sticker read kalloe, camila 11-02-2038.

Izabel nodded.

Luis put the vials into a plastic bag. "I'll check you out first," he said to Izabel, and as he reached around Kaito for the otoscope, Izabel watched his arm brush against Kaito's back. But Kaito didn't move from Cami's side. Luis put a pulse ox on Izabel's finger and then looked in her ears and nose and mouth. "Anything bothering you?"

"My throat hurts," she said.

He got her a lozenge out of a giant jar by the sink. "It's a minor irritation. Otherwise you look good." He put the cuff on her arm for the machine to take her blood pressure. The lozenge tasted like cherry medicine, like the recipe hadn't been changed in a hundred years. The cuff tightened around her arm and then released. Luis put the numbers into a tablet.

Next was Kaito's turn. He finally left Cami's side to have a seat. Luis said he looked fine as well. He added Katio's numbers to the tablet, put the tablet on the wall, and left the room.

That meant there'd never been too much pollen in the air in the house. That meant Cami should be okay. That meant Cami should wake up. Why wasn't she waking up?

As Izabel's mother got sicker, she slept more and more of the day. So Izabel explored more and more of the hospital. It didn't take her long to discover the morgue. Malik was the medical examiner and he seemed to take to Izabel right away, though she didn't know why. She wondered if he was warm toward everyone.

He let her watch autopsies. He even let her put on gloves and hold the organs. He had her place them on the scale, one by one, as he recorded their weights in pounds and ounces and muttered about the superiority of the metric system.

After her mother died that fall, Izabel tried going back to school. But she started failing all of her courses. At least I have a whole semester to fail out, she thought.

She didn't know what she wanted to do with her life anymore. She didn't know who she wanted to be. She didn't know what she thought about the words profession or occupation. She didn't like anything. Except spending time with Malik, who seemed to value her and the skills she was picking up in the quiet of the morgue.

It was there that she heard the first emergency warning.

"Where's the doctor?" Izabel said.

"They're waiting for the bloodwork," Kaito said.

"Couldn't they check on her before that?"

"Let's watch something on TV," Kaito said.


  • “Suspenseful and startling.”
    The Nerd Daily

    “A cli-fi novel for our times . . . Blake explores profound questions of human nature and free will. . .  [and] invites a profound consideration of the decisions we’re making in this very moment.”
    —Oprah Daily

    “Blake’s originality is on full display in this post-climate-apocalypse, murder mystery, science fiction, thriller extravaganza.”
    —Ms. Magazine

    “[An] engrossing and suspenseful tale that simultaneously delivers a lyrical homage to motherhood and a piercing vision of the fragility of humankind’s relationship with the natural world.”

    “[An] eerie dystopian tale… Novelist and poet Sarah Blake wows with her blend of chilling suspense and deadpan humor . . . Clean Air is a fast-moving thriller that makes it hard to catch your breath.”
    —Apple Books, Best of the Month: February

    “[A] suspenseful ecological science fiction novel.”

    “A post-post climate apocalypse story combining speculative fiction and a poet’s sensibilities.”
    Den of Geek

    "Clean Air features an encouraging vision of a future where humanity agrees to work together . . . It offers hope for a future where intimacy and family still matter, even under the direst circumstances.”
    The Ancillary Review of Books

    "The skillful blend of postapocalyptic science fiction, supernatural murder mystery, and domestic drama is unexpected and entirely engrossing.”
    Publishers Weekly

    “Interesting . . . A quick read with a timely premise.”
    Kirkus Reviews

    Clean Air is an amazing blend of page-turning mystery, important commentary about environmental destruction, and poignant portraiture of maternal love. Sarah Blake is a poet, and it shows in the way she takes her brilliant premise to another level with her economical prose, distilled insights, and wonderfully disturbing imagery.”
    —Angie Kim, author of Miracle Creek

    Clean Air is the work of a rare and casually powerful literary imagination. It is set in a future that feels all too real, a post-apocalyptic novel that is both a family story and a thriller. It's a remarkable book, a compelling read that haunts with its astuteness.”
    —Joan Silber, author of Improvement

    "Sarah Blake's novel Clean Air provides the suspense of a first-rate thriller with nuanced characters whose world is shifting due to climate catastrophes. I turned the pages fast, wanting to know what happens and caring about the characters equally. The writing sings us into a future filled with chaos but also hope and beauty."
    —Toni Jensen, author of Carry

    “Sarah Blake's Clean Air is both a scintillating hunt for a serial killer and a pollen-flecked meditation on what we owe each other and the planet. I loved every page and didn't want it to end.” 
    —Katie Williams, author of Tell the Machine Goodnight

    “Sarah Blake has travelled into the future to create a precise portrait of motherhood in this current moment, complete with one of the most fully realized children I have ever met on the page. Told with a poet's economy and logic, Clean Air is a clear-eyed look at the terror and tenderness of motherhood, and a parent's ordinary devotion in an extraordinary world. Be warned: you might not be able to put this book down until you reach its final page (and you'll enjoy every minute of it).”
    —Shruti Swamy, author of A House Is a Body

    Clean Air is a moving, suspenseful page-turner set in an eerily perfect post-apocalyptic bubble of climate demise. It's a beautiful and harrowing story of motherhood and the fight for a hopeful future for the ones we love. Sarah Blake's vivid and sharp observations of family, grief, and a world on the brink of collapse are so compelling that I eagerly raced to the last page. I couldn't put it down.” 
    —Crissy Van Meter, author of Creatures

On Sale
Jan 31, 2023
Page Count
336 pages
Algonquin Books

Sarah Blake

About the Author

Sarah Blake’s novel Naamah won the National Jewish Book Award for Debut Fiction. Blake is also the author of the poetry collections Mr. West and Let’s Not Live on Earth. In 2013, she was awarded a literature fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She currently lives in the UK.

Learn more about this author