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‘How High We Go in the Dark’ explores a desolate but disjointed post-pandemic world

 Sequoia Nagamatsu
Lauren B Photography
HarperCollins via Edelweiss
Sequoia Nagamatsu

Before you pick up “How High We Go in the Dark,” a buzzy debut novel by Sequoia Nagamatsu, be warned: This book is bleak. In a collection of interconnected stories, Nagamatsu follows the discovery and aftermath of a 30,000-year-old virus unearthed by the melting permafrost — an Arctic plague that threatens and then reshapes the entire universe.

In the opening scene we meet an archaeologist grieving the loss of his daughter, a climate scientist who died while studying the remains of a girl that appears to be part Neanderthal, part alien life form. An ancient pathogen is unleashed, and from there the novel explores humanity’s approach to sudden, overwhelming death. In an early and especially terrifying chapter, a young man takes a job at a euthanasia theme park where terminally ill children are put onto a roller coaster designed to kill them before the virus does. The desolate landscape of death and mourning takes off from there. We meet a scientist who raises pigs for transplant organs, an artist who crafts ice sculptures from the liquified remains of plague victims, a suicidal man who escapes into virtual reality. Each story relates something about how humans deal with loss and grief, and Nagamatsu’s writing is brilliant.

The novel has been compared to Emily St. John Mandel’s “Station Eleven,” and in fact, a display at my local bookstore drew a firm line between the two: If you liked that, you’ll like this. I’m not sure I agree. Both novels portray a post-pandemic apocalypse. But while “Station Eleven” crafts an arching narrative focused on resilience, this one is often disjointed and confusing. Characters come and go so quickly, with only minor tie-ins to previous chapters, that it’s hard to elicit an emotional response to the overall story.

Fans of dystopian sci-fi may appreciate some of the world-building here, as will those wanting to dig into pandemic fiction. But I came away wanting more.

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.