An archaeological dig in the gaping crater opened up in Siberia by melting permafrost. A euthanasia theme park for terminally ill children. And a macabre hotel where the bereaved stage a final holiday with their loved ones’ corpses.
You have to hand it to Sequoia Nagamatsu, he knows how to craft a memorable setting. His acclaimed debut novel How High We Go in the Dark is an intimate exploration of grief. It’s set within an epic over-arching tale of devastating, evolving plague and slow recovery.
Each chapter focuses on a different character facing up in their own way to the global crisis and their own loss within it.
A geneticist mourning his son forms a new connection with the pig he has bred to be an organ donor. A forensic biologist bonds through a shared love of rock music with the man who donates his plague-eaten body for her dissection.
Robot dogs, limping into obsolescence, preserve the voices of the dead for their grieving families. Funerary skyscrapers housing the ashes of a generation tower over towns cut into archipelagos by the rising sea.
Playful references to research and reinvented genre tropes swirl around tender emotional reflections. These are the sort of dreams you might have if you fall asleep reading New Scientist with Star Trek on in the background after coming home alone from a loved one’s funeral.
The stories of several interconnected families are told across successive generations. These offer glimpses of what Japanese-American communities face in the US—exoticising stereotypes, racist scapegoating, and the memory of mass internment.
Though there is much of sadness, violence and darkness in this book, there is also a constant theme of healing.
Strained relationships are reappraised in a more empathetic light. Strangers find ways to reach out to each other across social isolation. This all resonates powerfully in a world thrown into turmoil by a new disease under the shadow of climate breakdown.
Much of what became How High We Go In The Dark began as short stories written years before the Covid-19 pandemic. This is personal reflection, not political allegory, and there’s no villain to speak of.
If this is to be the first major entry in the new canon of pandemic fiction, it leaves room for tales a bit less sentimental and a lot more angry. But Nagamatsu’s gentle epic can offer two things.
A recognition of all the bewilderment, fear, frustration, loss and loneliness we’ve all had to bear since 2020. And a celebration of the resilience, imagination and solidarity that will see us through. In other words, it sets the bar very high indeed.
How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu is out now
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