In 2030, the melting permafrost uncovers the body of a girl in the Arctic Circle. The scientists studying her discover traces of an ancient virus in her tissues. When the scientists start falling ill, it’s the start of a pandemic that will change life on Earth.
How High We Go in the Dark is a powerful novel made up of interconnected stories, exploring rituals of death and grief in the face of a plague unleashed by climate change.
This of course is not going to be for everyone right now. It’s important to note that it’s not a Covid book, the virus is something quite different, but it is still going to have echoes of what we have been through these last two years. I found it intensely moving and somewhat cathartic.
The virus causes human cells to change, hearts become lungs, livers become kidneys. Of course, when cells change within an organ, it can no longer function as it should. This is almost like stem cells going awry, we all start off as cells with the power to be anything, is it possible they could be triggered somehow? Most likely, yes. For the sake of the novel, some of this can be managed with organ transplants, but when the virus reaches the brain, there’s little that can be done. We can’t transplant brains.
This is a beautiful book. It may not be our pandemic, but we start to focus on numbers, sometimes forgetting each number is a person, with a grieving family. These stories focus on individuals, but they also tell the story of the Arctic Plague across generations, how different ways of dealing with it emerge.
We needed a party to break the silence, to begin to heal. Had she lived, I know there would have been one every week – parties to forget, parties to remember, parties to dance the night away. She would have declared that the postapocalypse doesn’t mean we stop dancing.
Each chapter introduces a new protagonist linked to someone we have already met. Moving through time, they paint a picture of the Arctic Plague and its effects, but not losing sight of individual grief, individual lives lost. It says a lot about Sequoia Nagamatsu’s skill at writing characters that I got emotionally attached to each of them along the way. Sometimes in books that switch characters frequently, there’s not enough character development, but there was so much in this compact novel that moved me to tears.
Special shout out to the Notorious P.I.G. Such a noble creature. I don’t want to go into details about each character’s role, but the genetically modified pigs created to produce organs, were not only a story about science but also one of self-sacrifice.
It made me feel good. They burned incense and held each other and cried while gazing at photos of their relatives. I bowed my head in respect. Once upon a time this was how we dealt with death. But something snapped in us when the dead could no longer be contained, when people didn’t really get to say goodbye.
With the practicalities of so much death, the rituals of death are interrupted and reimagined. There’s a theme park dedicated to giving terminally ill children one last chance to be kids. Hotels are set up so loved ones don’t have to die alone, in impersonal spaces, places that allow a choice in how we die when it is inevitable. It looks at how some try to make sense of death, giving it meaning by organ donation or donating your body to science.
There’s a theme running through many of the stories of writing to those not present. One way people deal with grief, whether or not they are separated by death or something else.
I wondered what might be reflected in the eyes of those on the journey with us. As artists, we could transform the sterile walls of this ship into a home, preserve our journey for those who never woke up. I could hold on to our memories through the millennia. I could help us move on.
In the background, the spectre of climate change is present. In Japan, rising sea levels have shrunk the country further. Some seek a future for humans beyond our solar system, writing off Earth as doomed. Yet some still have faith in our ability to heal.
If you’re feeling up to it, I wholeheartedly recommend How High We Go in the Dark.
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