I didn’t really intend to read a pandemic book during the pandemic, but this novel by Ilze Hugo is on the TOB shortlist, and the more TOB books I read, the more fun the event is to follow. So here I am, having read a pandemic book during a pandemic. And it was basically fine.
The pandemic in The Down Days is a plague of laughter that broke out in a near-future version of South Africa. It was interesting, but not unexpected to see some of the behaviors exhibited by the people in the book echoed behaviors we see today. There are non-believers, those who think it’s a conspiracy, and those who are, at best, lackadaisical about wearing masks. And there’s a lot of death, more than we’ve experienced, enough to cause societal breakdown. The governing systems that do seem operational are those designed to monitor the spread of the virus and quarantine the sick.
The book covers a week in the lives of a group of characters whose fates become gradually intertwined. Faith has a job picking up dead bodies, Sans gets by collecting and selling data, and Tomorrow is a kid just trying to survive with her brother after her parents succumb to the virus. There are more, but these three are the main characters to be concerned about.
The book moves quickly between these and other characters, sometimes too quickly, with each chapter tending a be just a few pages. It creates a sort of tick-tock effect, showing how the week went across the city, but it also makes it difficult to really settle in and understand and care about the characters. I cared about them mostly in theory, not because they had qualities that mattered to me.
And, as the book goes on, the plot gets increasingly complex, with supernatural elements getting introduced (ghosts, psychics, time travel) in ways that sometimes seem mostly there to make the plot work. I did like the use of ghosts, but I would have liked a little more in-depth exploration of them.
In fact, more depth is really what I wanted from this book. It skips through this world, hopping from one character and situation to another, never really taking time to soak in the atmosphere.