Ilze Hugo’s debut novel Down Days was written before the Covid-19 pandemic swept the globe, so the eerie similarities between her fictional version of Cape Town, South Africa and the real world today seem prophetic. Readers are introduced to Sick City ( formerly known as Cape Town ) 7 years after a pandemic has affected the entire world. The slang term for the virus is called “the joke”, named for it’s symptom of uncontrollable laughter, but the other symptoms are no joke — a fever followed by organ failure leads to death. Although there is no cure for the infected, a vaccine is administered to all citizens via wellness kiosks; however, the vaccine’s efficacy and side effects are questionable. The infected poor are flagged, picked up by police and sent to death warehouses, while the wealthy get out of being tested and can choose to go to death retreats. Society has continued but gives a whole new meaning to the term “a new normal”. People drop dead in the street, children of parents who have succumbed to the virus fend for themselves unless shipped off to another form of warehousing, botanical gardens and parks have become urban farms, government sanctioned fight clubs are considered a mental health treatment for rage and the country is cut off from any media from the outside.
The intertwining lives of three central characters propel the plot forward. Faith works as a dead collector, picking up bodies for mass cremation. Her experiences have forced her to cut off emotionally and abandon the person she was before the virus, until she meets Tomorrow. Tomorrow, a twelve year old orphan girl, hires Faith to investigate her little brother’s kidnapping, which forces Faith to confront her repressed feelings of loss and grief. In Faith’s search for the missing boy, she finds her path keeps crossing with the gangster Sans. Sans is what is known as a ponyjacker. Although not violent, he robs people of their hair to sell in the lucrative weave market, which is tied to a local convent. The convent practices a modified and controversial form of their usual faith, adapting it to the current climate. When his courier Lucky goes missing while on route with a delivery to the convent, Sans is on the hook for the lost profits. As Faith and Tomorrow investigate the kidnapping and Sans searches for his missing courier, they all realize there is more to the world they live in than what they can see or understand.
At first, reading this book was stressful and induced some pandemic anxiety. Although a different situation, it is close enough to make me question where the world is headed if Covid-19 persists for years into the future. Down Days initially seems like a purely dystopian novel, but Hugo steers it in a spiritual and metaphysical direction. While not my usually preferred topics or themes, they evolve in a way that feel natural and right for the story. By the end I wanted more.