Book Review: How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu

I’d like to introduce you all to the 2023 Adult All Iowa Reads selection: How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu. For the last several years, the Adult All Iowa Reads selections have been generally down-to-earth, mostly featuring familiar Midwestern landscapes and contemporary situations we recognize. Some of the locales have included Ames, small-town Wisconsin, and family farms; catalysts that drive them forward include medical issues, dysfunctional relationships, and familial ties. This book, while featuring some of these same themes, is an extreme pick compared to prior All Iowa Reads picks – it takes a plague and cranks its effects on the world beyond the 1-10 scale (up to at least an 11) in short stories that combine genres such as sci-fi, speculative fiction, and dystopian literature.


In short: it’s both extremely different and pretty mind-blowing.


Before too many assumptions are made, let me clear something up: Nagamatsu had written this book before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world in 2020 (although the book itself wasn’t published until January 2022). While parallels certainly exist between our real pandemic and the imagined outbreak, as I suspect they inevitably would with other devastating plagues, Nagamatsu’s focus is less on the political and medical ramifications we frequently saw on our TV screens and much more on the dystopian turn that society takes after the initial outbreak. His imagination also takes us beyond the first few years (i.e. where we are in 2023) and instead shows us decades and even centuries after the plague changes everything.


The result is simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking. Many of the stories told in this novel blur the professional and personal lines that exist in hospitality, retail, and research settings. Feelings develop between a park worker and a desperate mother whose son is dying; a man who repairs robotic pets regularly lies to some of his young clients so they might hold onto hope that their loved ones aren’t all gone; a research pig develops telepathic speech and becomes a surrogate son to a grieving scientist. The depth of speculation can vary widely, vacillating between scenarios that could theoretically happen today to the imagined shared comas of the plague victims to the way humanity might colonize distant planets… but nevertheless, the heart is there throughout as Nagamatsu explores what it means to be family and to be human in a broken world.


How High We Go in the Dark is in Charles City Public Library’s physical and virtual collections for all patrons. Check it out online via Libby as an ebook or audiobook, or get the physical copy today by stopping in or calling 641-257-6319!