CW: multiple mass casualty events including a virus caused pandemic; on page panic attack representation.
I remember discovering the author’s name during the Baltimore book festival but I never got to attend the panel that she was in. However, I did find out about this debut novel of hers and seeing such high praise for it immediately put it on my radar. I probably would have waited for a bit longer to read it because I’m an expert at procrastination, but when this was nominated for the Nebula awards, I decided to read it before the winners are announced in May. And while this was such a unique reading experience for me, I’m still wondering if I read it at the right time (I read it about a month ago). And that’s why this review might go into spoiler territory, so please bear with me.
The setting of this novel feels like a typical dystopia – a Before and an After with a series of mass casualty events in the middle, and the advent of more governmental control and restrictions on the people in the aftermath. But the timing of this book couldn’t have been more uncanny. In addition to major terrorist attacks on large gatherings, one of the other big mass casualty event in the book is a virus based pox like pandemic that kills a lot of people, leading to massive social isolation among the people due to fear/paranoia and a total ban on gatherings by the government – and what a time to be reading something like this when I’ve been extremely fearful myself for the past few weeks due to the coronavirus outbreak and hardly stepping out of the house. The way the author describes the fear that grips people’s minds (as well as the government’s) and how it affects their relationships with others, the advancements in technology allowing people to remain in their homes and never have to interact with anyone outside of online spaces, how much corporations and governments play on this fear to keep their control and maintain the status quo – it all feels extremely realistic and something you would think might even happen to us and that scared me a lot.
That’s not to say this was a difficult book to read because it’s actually not. The writing style is very easy and accessible, but I don’t think it’s the binge reading kind. This is a book that needs to be read slowly and savored. It’s a slow paced, slice of life kind of storytelling where we follow the characters on their daily lives and journeys of finding those connections which make them feel. And the connecting thread here is music. I didn’t know that the author is a singer/songwriter but that is very evident in the way music is such an integral part of the story – this book is essentially a love letter to the art of singing and performing, the connection that forms between an artist and their audience especially during a live performance and how that magic can never be recreated otherwise, it’s about how much humans crave that connection maybe even subconsciously and how such experiences just make them richer, and how even a simple act of solidarity between artist and listener can be a form of resistance.
I don’t want to give away too much (I’ve already done that a lot above) by talking about the characters in detail but we follow Luce and Rosemary and it was a joy to read about such amazing women. I related most to Rosemary who’s been mostly isolated her whole life but when she gets the opportunity to go out into the world, she has to brave her fears and panic and take a chance at forming those connections. And I love that she found it in music and the way she tried to change the world in her own little ways was amazing. On the other hand, Luce is who I would aspire to be – bold and badass, resilient and strong – she knows that her power is in her music and despite it being illegal, she uses every possible avenue available to her to put herself out there and perform and give opportunity to other artists to do the same. There are many other smaller characters whom Rosemary and Luce meet on their journeys and how they all support each other and collaborate forms the crux of this novel.
To conclude, this is a very unique take on a dystopian novel and if you don’t mind slice of life style storytelling, you should totally check it out. If you are a huge music/ rock bands fan, then I think you’ll appreciate this book even more than I did. Ultimately, this is a beautiful story about human connection and how powerful it is when we all stand in solidarity with each other; and I can definitely see why it’s a Nebula contender. Just pick it up and savor the experience like when you listen to a mesmerizing musical performance.