How I discovered this book: Amazon Browse
In a Nutshell: dystopian alternative present, post-'Crisis', in which everyone lives in fear of viruses. Yes, I'm aware of the irony in that sentence.
I gathered that this book is set not in the future but in an alternative though chillingly relevant fictional present; there are some suggestions of the years in which events took place, though not many. At some point which I took to be the recent past, the 'Crisis' has occurred: over 200 million deaths and counting, as spiralling drug resistance means that ordinary infections can kill, and the availability of antibiotics that actually work is severely limited. Seventy years old is the cut-off point for being allowed anything but over-the-counter medication. If ill, men and women wait for a painful death, or can choose to end their own lives.
The narrative zig-zags between present and past, a structure I always like, as the meshing of the two timelines is gradually revealed. Kate, a nurse in the restriction and doom-filled present, has a husband and daughter, but knows she was adopted. The other main present day POV is that of Lily, a woman in a private care home facing her seventieth birthday. The chapters in the past centre around Mary, a biologist in South Africa, who meets the married Piet Bekker, and begins a love affair. It is clear almost from the start that Mary later becomes 'Lily' (ie, this is not a spoiler); the reasons why are revealed slowly, throughout the book. The plot centres round the Crisis itself, the part Mary and Bekker played in the TB pandemic, and family secrets.
I enjoyed reading this unusual story, which brings to mind many frightening real life predictions. The contrast between Lily and Kate's world in the present and Mary and Bekker's carefree life at the end of the last century is heartrending, and makes me glad I am old enough to remember the 1960s-90s. A most memorable part for me was Mary's obsessive love for Bekker; her every emotion and action were so real. Bekker was horribly arrogant, and I felt so sad for her, especially as time went on; the 'other woman' is so often seen as a person whose feelings are of no importance. In order to avoid facing up to choices made by the husband and father, the family is inclined to place all blame on the girlfriend.
As for Africa, the sense of place was so vivid; it made me feel nostalgic for somewhere I have not been.
There were a couple of aspects about which I was not so sure; I couldn't work out why Lily, at just sixty-nine, seemed more like a woman in her nineties. She had crippling arthritis, but the other descriptions of her (papery skin, wispy white hair, etc) seemed unlikely. Several of my friends are in their late sixties, and look much the same as I do (I'm 61); my mother didn't seem that decrepit even in her late eighties, and she had Alzheimer's. It's possible that I missed something; there was a lot of information to take in (if I did, please tell me!). Also, I wished there had been a little more explanation of the Crisis itself, exactly how it unfolded, what actually happened, rather than just snapshots; the accounts were a little haphazard, and I felt it was here that the zig-zagging between time periods came unstuck. A bit of chronology might have helped.
On the whole, though, it's one of those 'not 5* but better than 4*' books, and one I definitely recommend.