How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu review – a patchwork of pandemic stories

Sequoia Nagamatsu’s ambitious novel-in-stories was written long before Covid. Nietemin, when melting permafrost reveals a Neanderthal corpse, which in turn disgorges an ancient plague, the repercussions feel initially familiar. Only initially, because the Arctic plague will turn out to be far deadlier, while Nagamatsu’s zany vision extends, via a succession of first-person narrators, thousands of years into the future, incorporating interstellar travel, advanced cryopreservation and alien shape-shifters.

The plague first targets children, transforming their organs into approximations of other bodily organs (squeamish readers take note: Nagamatsu isn’t one to shy away from the physicality of disease). Soon, all aspects of human life revolve around death. “Mortuary cryptocurrencies” are the only money worth having, high-rise cemeteries sprout and theme parks become euthanasia centres.

It’s at such a park that one of the novel’s more affecting episodes is set. In the “before times”, its narrator was an aspiring comedian. Nou, he dons a mouse costume and escorts kids on to the last ride of their short lives at the City of Laughter. When he grows close to a mother and her dying son, he finds himself mourning a future he might never have known he wanted.

The boy’s father is the focus of another of the novel’s stronger chapters. Overseeing an operation to farm donor organs from pigs, he and his team accidentally breed a pig that’s able to talk. Nicknamed “Snortorious P.I.G.”, he’s a whimsical beast, ravenous for knowledge and poised to teach his human carers much about mortality.

As the losses pile up, Nagamatsu succeeds in assembling a book that feels energetic despite its base note of mainly muted, sometimes maudlin despair. A little over halfway through, tales of endings give way to visions of new beginnings, albeit not here on Earth. It closes with a somewhat corny solution to a mystery whose seeds were planted in the first pages: how did the cavern in which the Neanderthal girl was found come to be inscribed with advanced mathematics?

Many of these chapters have been published as short stories in the past decade. While they don’t convince as a novel, they’ve undeniably found their moment with their sustained message that love and hope continue to flicker even in the face of catastrophic pestilence.

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