how high we go in the dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu

Book review: ‘How High We Go In The Dark’ by Sequoia Nagamatsu – dazzling, devastating stories from a plague-ridden world ★★★★

I had to take a break from plague books in early 2020. But here I am again.

Scientists studying the melting arctic tundra unwittingly release a deadly plague, buried in the ancient remains of a young girl. Soon, the world is ensconced in a new, deadly virus – a world that we learn about through fragmented (but interconnected) narratives that take us up from that fateful year of 2030 to hundreds of years into the future.

‘It’s hard to ignore the Earth when it slowly destabilizes beneath you as you sleep, when it unlocks secrets you never asked for or wanted.’

It sounds relentlessly bleak, and even more so when I tell you that the primary victims of the ‘first wave’ of this virus are children. In response to the mounting, unimaginable death toll, cities build ‘euthanasia parks’, designed as ways of enabling dying children to have one last day of fun before slowly being put to sleep mid-air on a rollercoaster. It’s a harrowing image, but a compassionate one: in the face of global tragedy, we find new ways to grieve and process death. It’s told with bucket loads of empathy, forging human connections between the reader and the characters even as we only know them in short vignettes.

The novel explores how we are changed by loss and also the grimly inevitable industry of death that springs up around it, a late capitalist enterprise for the plague age. In this universe, you can store memories of loved ones inside the plastic carcass of a robot dog; book a room in an ‘elegy hotel’ where you can spend time with the corpse of your friend or family member; pay to have your remains liquefied into a sculpture and set out on the ocean to dissolve. Melancholy is everywhere you turn in this book.

‘… something snapped in us when the dead could no longer be contained, when people didn’t really get to say goodbye. Cryogenic suspension companies proliferated, death hotels, services that preserved and posed your loved ones in fun positions, travel companies that promised a “natural” getaway with your recently departed. I remember Mr. Fang reminding us upon hire to always exude customer service, to never upset the guests, to remember that we were a hotel first and foremost, a funeral home second.’

It’s literary/science/speculative fiction, but transcends parameters of genre in many ways. I found it to be deeply imaginative, illuminating and original, and particularly liked the fresh perspective that came from almost all the characters being Japanese or Japanese-American.

Although it is a novel, the short story structure means it inevitably falls into short story pitfalls – some are much better than others. I preferred the human, grounded stories to the high-concept science-fiction takes, but that might just be personal preference. Even when things do get high-concept, Nagamatsu retains the human element – parents and children, siblings, lovers, friends – these intimate relationships are at the heart of the stories. There’s an attempt at the end to circle back in a cosmic origin story, that I didn’t find altogether successful – but can see that it was included in an attempt to bring some world order and connection to the narrative.

Finally, I think it’s important to talk about hope. There is hope in this novel – it may be bittersweet, or fleeting, but it is there – there are ways to rebuild in the wake of tragedy. Human connection remains the glue that holds together a fractured world.

‘We need 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.’

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7 thoughts on “Book review: ‘How High We Go In The Dark’ by Sequoia Nagamatsu – dazzling, devastating stories from a plague-ridden world ★★★★

  1. This is a really lovely review. I’m already impressed by the depth of thought that seems to have gone into imagining this future, particularly if it hasn’t detached empathy and hope from the narrative.

    Interesting that it is in short stories! It sounds like a clever way to delve into the intricacies of the multiple genres.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh thank you! You’re right, it is very well constructed – I’m still thinking about it. Apparently several of the stories were published separately before this, and it was all written prior to covid, which is interesting. I think it would have landed differently if I’d read it a few years ago.

      Liked by 1 person

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