Six years after the End of the World – a virulent strain of flu wiping out most of the world’s population – the world is in shambles. There are tentative pockets of humanity clustered together with the loosest attempts at government, technology, regulation, protection, and news. Nearly everyone suffers from some form of trauma disorder after losing homes, friends, family, and life the way it was Before. Rob is trying to keep his daughter with him. Moira is trying to escape her past identity. Krista is determined to act as if the threat of flu isn’t real. These three are thrown together by circumstance, with the choice to sink back into their own individual isolation or work cooperatively to create something new, and better.
The setting of this book is very, very dark. Out of darkness, though, can come light, if you let it, and this is ultimately a story not of survival, but of connection. At one point, Rob states to a survivor therapy group that it seems as if everyone is hiding behind something, usually fear, and that he wants the world to be more than fear again. But to most people, it’s as if this isn’t a possibility. The fear is all-encompassing – which makes sense given that this flu keeps mutating and spreading further – and society is on hold. Society as a whole has a freeze trauma response, unable to move forward until the danger is gone…which will be never. That makes the situation feel very hopeless as you read.
Each of the main characters – Rob, Moira, and Krista – must overcome the thing that holds them back, the thing they’re hiding behind, in order to connect to the world and to others again. Of the three of them, it was Rob’s journey in particular that I connected to. Because of Rob’s situation – the threat of his child being taken from him – he must take steps forward. They may be forced steps and not something he would do normally if not for his situation, but they’re still steps forward. And in emerging from his own pocket of isolation, Rob discovers that there’s still a world outside of his little bubble of space. He wants that world back. Rob’s story is one of a world that has grown so small that he’s surprised that anything exists beyond it, like opening blackout curtains and discovering that it’s no longer night time and that the sun is quite bright outside. It’s a metaphor for the kinds of mental health problems that involve withdrawing from the world, whether that’s depression or agoraphobia or PTSD, and the discovery that waits when you’re able to reemerge. It reminds me of a line from Keane’s “Spiraling:”
The map of my world gets smaller as I sit here pulling on the loose threads.
This book was just beautiful. I liked Chen’s Here and Now and Then, though I had some issues with it. This one was much better in my opinion. Better written, better paced, hard decisions for the characters, and a beautiful exploration both of mental health and the beauty that lies in connecting to other human beings.