In a weird way, Ilze Hugo’s debut novel The Down Days feels almost a little too on the nose. The novel, which chronicles an African city which has been quarantined after the outbreak of “the Laughter,” reads as both poignant and haunting in these uncertain times. The book asks questions that we are perhaps scared to ask of ourselves in this moment: What can we hold onto when everything is disappearing? How do we survive when the world we once knew is collapsing around us?
Ilze Hugo is a South African author who is currently based in Capetown. Though The Down Days is her first novel, Hugo has published two short story collections, The Ghost Eater and Other Shorts and My Holiday Shorts. The Down Days is comparable to these collections in some important ways—Hugo’s effortlessly buoyant prose and magical realist impulse shines through in each of these works. But the narrative plot driving Down Days forward sets this project apart from her previous writing and illustrates an ability for powerful and nuanced storytelling not seen in her shorter pieces.
One of Hugo’s greatest accomplishments in the novel is her ability to establish laughter as something worthy of fear. In The Down Days, the characters are infected with the giggles and uncontrollable laughter often drives people to death. While this plot might sound a bit ludicrous, Hugo completely pulls it off. The reader easily enters the mind of the characters as they grow paranoid, begin panicking, hallucinating, experiencing loss, and trying to make sense of their new world where joy is a sign of impending doom.
The novel brings readers through several character’s perspectives as they adjust to this new reality. One by one readers are introduced to the many inhabitants of this bizarre city— a young girl searching for her brother, a truthologist solving puzzles, a man looking for a lost bag of money and his gang partner who skipped out on him, a mysterious woman with unicorn hair—and learn to navigate this new world right along with them. The perspective of Faith, one of the protagonists, was particularly compelling as Hugo used flashbacks to vividly illustrate the characters’ life before the Laughter came. As the book becomes more apocalyptic, the book’s universe began to look more like our world looks today. The characters in The Down Days have trouble finding essential items at the grocery store, everyone is wearing masks, the public debates whether to stay home or rise up and protest, and officials determine who’s sick based on a thermometer reading. As the plot thickened, watching the characters navigate these post-apocalyptic circumstances became not only fascinating, but strangely reassuring.
The characters in The Down Days are potentially the most lovable component of the book. Hugo’s in-depth and punchy descriptions for each protagonist creates people so vivid, it’s easy to forget we are reading about a fictional world. Her initial introduction of the first character, Sans as a “weasel, wheeler, dealer,” and a “DIY scavenging schemer” as he enters the illegal hair-selling trade sets the scene for the lovable rascal of the group. Meanwhile, her depiction of Faith as a pensive young woman pining after her life before the The Down Days opens up a discussion of nostalgia for better times. Her diversity of protagonists allows for the reader to understand the complexity of how the Laughter changed this universe, and comprehend the diversity of reactions people often have to crisis.
Aside from the plot itself, The Down Days shone in its lyrical, poetic language and the elements of magical realism embedded throughout the story. From the book’s first sentence, Hugo establishes herself as a master of language. Through sprinkling bits of Afrikaans into the story, the author provides a unique and culturally specific lens into the character’s world. And the playful, upbeat pace of the prose throughout the novel mirrors the book’s fast paced plot and never allows the reader to bore of the narrative.
While the novel certainly takes some dark turns, the book’s central thesis provides some hope. As the plot progresses, the unexpected relationships between each of the characters become more clear. These bonds make the book’s conclusion satisfying beacon of hope: the notion that family is the antidote to crisis and that if we lose one we should build another. The novel argues that we can always defeat darkness—even when the “darkness” in question is something as seemingly un-sinister as laughter—as long as we fight together. For a book called The Down Days, Hugo certainly used her debut novel to meditate on the ways that we can look forward to brighter days ahead.
The Down Days is available from Skybound Books.
Mary is a freelance writer covering culture, identity, sexual politics, and wellness. Her work has been featured in The Guardian, The Nation, Glamour, Teen Vogue, Bitch Media, Vice, Nylon, Allure, and other similar outlets. When she is not writing she can be found scheming, watching cartoons, or sending unnecessarily long emails. To see more of Mary’s work and adventures, follow her on Twitter.