Pandemic Story-Telling (A Book Review of sorts)

This month I inadvertently found myself reading 3 books at once with one glaring thing in common: they were all set during pandemics. Two of these pandemics were fiction, one was real. One of these books was written and published before 2020, two after. Two of these books I finished reading, one I abandoned partway through.

The books were each unique, set in different areas of the world and different timeframes. The characters were also very different from one another. But clearly, collectively, we have pandemics on the mind.

The Sentence, by Louise Erdrich, is one that I’ve already reviewed more thoroughly and the only one of these three that features the real-life pandemic that we have all been living through. Beginning on November 1st, 2019 and going through an entire year to November 1st, 2020, it captures much of the unique circumstances of life throughout that year. Including the growing racial tensions that developed after George Floyd’s murder in 2020. Erdrich details things like social distancing, mask-wearing, and business shutting down. There is the uncertainty of those early weeks, particularly before vaccines were developed and available, but there is also a familiarity because we have lived through this experience and if we are reading this book, we have somehow made it this far to 2022.

Severance by Ling Ma was first published in 2018 but drew a lot more attention in the early months of 2020 as we all began to live through a pandemic that, in some ways, felt very similar to the one Ma invented. Set in New York, our narrator is a young woman named Candace. She works an office job, manufacturing Bibles, has a long-term boyfriend but very little in the way of friends, and seemingly no longterm plans or desires. When Shen Fever originates in China, it doesn’t take long to make its way around the globe. Causing its victims to repeat the same actions over and over again, it turns them effectively into zombies (though without the violence we might expect). How it is transmitted remains uncertain but people begin to wear masks to protect themselves, even as there is uncertainty over their effectiveness. Part of the action takes place after Candace has left New York and joined a group of survivors, led by a man named Bob, searching for a place Bob believes will keep them safe and that he refers to as The Facility.

After finishing Severance, I’m inclined to believe that what drew readers to Ling Ma’s novel is how much she got right. Not just a virus that originated out of China that officials tried to cover up or the usage of masks, but the ways people react. The panic, the complacency, the way such events change relationships. Overall though, I found the book kind of boring. I actually was more interested in Candace’s pre-pandemic life than her travels with Bob & Co. Candace herself is not a particularly dynamic character and the story overall lacked tension. I can imagine that if I had read it in March 2020, I might have found it more stressful but here in May 2022, I just didn’t.

The final of my three pandemic reads was Here Goes Nothing, a new book by Steve Toltz (author of A Fraction of a Whole). This is a new novel, just released in March of this year (I had an ARC). Set in Australia, it features a global pandemic as a sort of side event. Though, I never finished it, so perhaps the pandemic becomes a bigger deal later on. The pandemic is fictional (and a lot more gruesome than the one in Severance) but it’s impossible that Toltz wasn’t inspired somewhere by the real world. The narrator here is Angus Mooney, a recently deceased man who has just discovered that there actually is an afterlife. Too bad it’s a worse version of the world as he already knew it and it’s terribly mismanaged. Added to that is the fact that the man who killed Mooney is now attempting to seduce his pregnant widow. This is one of those books that I think is supposed to be funny but it just wasn’t at all my sense of humour. I found Mooney annoying. I found his wife annoying. I found Toltz’s whole vision of the afterlife annoying. And as someone who does actually have fairly specific beliefs about life after death, I simply wasn’t enjoying this read and I didn’t care what happened in the growing pandemic that Mooney had left behind.

I didn’t set out to read any pandemic books, let alone three at once, so I think it’s indicative of a growing topic of interest. I knew that The Sentence and Severance featured pandemics before I began reading them. I think this is something that we’ll see more of in the coming months in years and I feel like that makes sense. Art is one of the ways that we as humans deal with trauma and tragedy. We need to express the collective grief and loss we have experienced, both in big and small ways. We need to share those experiences and feelings and know that we’re not alone. I’m not sure that I will ever seek out pandemic novels but I have a feeling I haven’t read my last.

Have you read any novels that feature pandemics? Were they based on something real or fictional? Do you find it helpful or do they stress you out?

17 thoughts on “Pandemic Story-Telling (A Book Review of sorts)”

  1. Great post! I’ve heard mostly good things about Severance, so I’d like to give it a try at some point. Like you, I haven’t been seeking out pandemic reads on purpose, but there are definitely a lot of them doing the rounds at the moment. Sealed by Naomi Booth really packs a punch, and I’m planning to pick up Burntcoat by Sarah Hall as well.

    1. Thank! I’d heard lots of good things about Severance too. While it didn’t live up to all my expectations I’m glad I read it. I will look up those other titles. I’m not seeking out pandemic reads but I do find reading about peoples’ various experiences to be interesting.

  2. I’m a long time fan of Stephen King and rate The Stand as one of my favourite books by him. It was written 40 years ago and begins with a virus that escapes from a lab which goes on to kill most of the world’s population. The living then divide into good and evil and face off. There are supernatural elements because the story is by Stephen King.
    I’ve only read a few stories so far set during the early days of Covid, with the time and Covid as a backdrop to the story rather than being ‘the’ story. Not sure I’m ready for more yet, but I’d happily re-read The Stand almost as a comfort read.

    1. I haven’t read The Stand but I can see how an entirely fictional virus story where you know the ending could be a comfort read!

  3. I don’t think I’m ready for pandemic novels, certainly not ones about the real pandemic we’ve just experienced. I always think you need a certain amount of time to pass to be able to take an objective view of real-life events or they can easily just slip into being a re-hash of all the arguments and often become polemical, since very few authors won’t have had a decided view of whether masks, vaccines, etc were a good thing or a vast government conspiracy.

    1. Yes, we don’t really have enough time or space from this whole experience to have a true perspective on what’s happened to us. What worked for me in The Sentence is that it had a very focused scope and didn’t try to address the world at large. I think it also helped that its timeline occurred before the vaccines and so the author could just ignore that whole later part of the pandemic.

  4. I’m noticing quite a few pandemic novels too. Sometimes the pandemic is in the past, or it’s a side story, or there’s a totally new pandemic set in the future. Now i read books, and the Covid pandemic is just referenced offhand like a historical event, which is interesting too. This will keep evolving no doubt 🙂

    1. Pandemic as side story is an interesting one to me – I’ve seen that too. Even the Toltz, as far as I got at least, the pandemic seemed secondary to the actual plot. I feel like we’re going to see more of that, where it’s just the reality of the background as it is for us in real life.

  5. I REALLY liked the audiobook of World War Z, which is written very much like a pandemic novel because becoming a zombie is the result of a virus spreading. He covers all over the world (not just major cities) and looks at what different groups were doing, how they were responding, and the varied emotions they had based on their cultures and nations. I thought the audiobook was great because it’s a cast of voice actors, many of them famous, so you feel like you’re listening to all the various voices of people the narrator, a journalist, interviews a few years after the onset of “World War Z.” I also really like the movie, but they are totally different.

    1. I loved that book! I bet it would be so good in audio, especially if they used different voice actors. I thought he did such a great job of depicting a wide variety of characters and places and making a zombie apocalypse as realistic as you can.

  6. I read Field Notes on a Pandemic by Ethan Lou earlier this year, which is sort of a memoir/travelogue that takes place in the early days of the pandemic. It’s crazy how uncertain things were back in March 2020; I definitely forgot about all that.

    1. I have found myself occasionally slipping into a sort of nostalgia for those early days but that quickly goes away when I remember who uncertain everything was.

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