This post is part of a blog tour organised by Random Things Blog Tours. I received a free copy of the book in return for an honest review.
‘A Syrian refugee with a special gift but who is hiding a dark secret… a man scarred by childhood memories of sexual abuse… a middle-class English mother of two whose husband she suspects is having an affair.
‘These are among eight apparently unconnected people who find themselves seriously ill in hospital after becoming infected with covid.
‘As they drift in and out of consciousness, their lucid and often terrifying dreams take each of them on a retrospective journey revealing the circumstances that led them to catch the virus, as well as an “alternative” life they could have led had they made different choices or had circumstances been different.
‘In the Meantime is a story of self-discovery and self-reflection, but ultimately it is an exploration of the fragility and unpredictability of life, where the underlying message is of how precious time is and the importance of living every moment to the fullest.’
In In the Meantime, by Alex Fragnière, we meet eight people of different genders, ages, races, and classes, all of whom are in the same hospital with COVID-19 at more or less the same time.
As they lie comatose, through their dreams we learn where they were and what they were doing when they caught the virus, and how their lives might have turned out if events had unfolded differently on that fateful day. We then see how things actually go for them once they’re out of danger.
In the Meantime is an immense achievement, especially for a first-time author. Not only are there eight distinctive main characters commanding three chapters each over nearly 600 pages, but there are several highly-developed supporting characters such as partners, family members, colleagues and medical staff, and all of them are constantly crossing paths, both in their dreams and real life.
Initially, I did have to flick back a few times to remind myself who was who - a cast list at the front would have come in handy! Soon enough, though, I was able to recognise characters from previous chapters when they popped up later on (and very much enjoyed these continual ‘aha!’ moments) and formed emotional attachments that meant I finished the book wanting even more. It’s very cleverly woven and I commend the author for keeping such a firm hold on all the different threads.
I really loved the assortment of personalities the many characters bring to the mix. I think everyone who reads the book will have their own favourites (mine were Joseph and Majd, and I also warmed to Haluk after a negative first impression). Imogen in particular is a love-to-hate character who I imagine was especially enjoyable to write.
The characters’ experiences also span a huge range, with histories in different places and time periods that must have required a considerable amount of research. Through them, Fragnière explores a dizzying array of topics. Some of these are heavy ones, such as racism, (internalised) homophobia, domestic violence, and child abuse - but there’s still space for humour and levity.
This variety also creates intrigue, as you wonder in what circumstances an unlikely combination of characters are inevitably going to encounter one another, and what their reactions will be.
The main message I took away from In the Meantime is how life can turn on a dime, and one tiny thing being different could have sent you down a completely different path.
So many times, I’ve thought ‘if only this had/hadn’t happened’ or ‘if only I’d done/not done this’, just to conclude that a) things wouldn’t have necessarily turned out better for me if that were the case; and b) that single change could have affected so many other, seemingly unrelated things that my alternative life would be unrecognisable, and I’d have missed out on making discoveries, having experiences, and meeting people that I value and are important to who I am.
For the most part, while being hospitalised with covid certainly isn’t pleasant for any of the characters, the alternative timelines where they don’t catch it range from “could be better” to “downright tragic”, and give them an indication of a fate to try to avoid when they get back to their normal lives. That’s not to say that what does end up happening is universally positive, though.
For one thing, the characters are shown only one version of their future lives, which itself hinges on thousands of choices and occurrences, big and small. For another, while they may resolve to approach life differently after their near-death experiences, they’re only human and can’t help but give in, make mistakes, and revert to type at least sometimes.
It also seems that some events are destined to happen in any case - such as the death that brings most of the characters to the same funeral in the third part of the book.
On a not-entirely-unrelated note, I admire the author for going all-in with the pandemic theme, as I know some writers don’t want to write about it, and some readers don’t want to read about it.
I personally have no objection to covid novels - they give me a sense of ‘I was there, that weird time did exist’, but also, it was a real thing that happened (and is still happening) and it does everyone who suffered as a result of it a disservice to ignore it, rather than engage with it as a historical event that affected people in all sorts of different ways and changed how they lived and worked, if only for a bit.
Plus, as the eight characters in In the Meantime demonstrate, we can’t know what would have happened if coronavirus didn’t break out, or different decisions were made about it. There are infinite, unpredictable, and far-reaching ways it could have been both better and worse at all sorts of levels.
In the Meantime is ambitious, well-executed, moving, and thought-provoking.