“The sickness” hits the Unites States leaving its victims covered in silvery scabs, bereft of their memories, and fated with an unavoidable death. 19-year-old Joy finds herself swept away to an isolated hospital along with others who have been exposed to the fast-spreading disease. Here, Joy becomes intimate with a widower, endeared by orphaned twin boys, and distracted by the mysterious pilgrims who stand vigil outside the hospital.
Unlike other dystopian novels (i.e. Children of Men, World War Z), this story is not rife with action or a rush to find a cure. In fact, most of the scientific elements fizzle away on a back burner. The protagonist has a lot of time on her hands. She gets lost in the entanglements of her memories and her imaginings. Joy’s fears, doubts, and transient lifestyle make her the ideal, unreliable first-person narrator. You feel as vulnerable and as unknowing as Joy.
Van den Berg uses poetic phrases and gorgeous water imagery that lulls you. Her words leave you aimlessly drifting along and waiting for meaning along with Joy. The story can be summed up by one of Joy’s powerful lines:
“I feel like my life is a tent someone has folded up and carried away.”
Being an orphan, Joy never had a permanent home or family life. She drifted from place to place, always finding herself lost—her future a dark blur. The language sets the mood and helps you delve into the psyche of a lonely woman in an unravelling world.
The second part of the book meanders into a new direction, possibly leaving you confused or unsatisfied. Other characters materialize along the way, but never long enough to leave their imprint on you. Like the memories of the afflicted, the relationships Joy forms with others come and go too quickly. The final scene is fitting, but may leave you with more questions than answers.
I recommend this book for readers who appreciate the intricacies of language, but not to those who want a tight plot and a clear resolution at the end of the novel.