Living smack dab in the middle of a global pandemic seems like the PERFECT time to read a novel about a global pandemic right? Ok maybe not, and for those who are suffering from anxiety over our current situation, you may not want to reach for a book about a virus originating in China that’s forcing everyone to wear face masks, I get it. But in this case, fiction is very closely following real life here, and rather than increase my anxiety, I felt strangely settled after reading Songs for the End of the World by Saleema Nawaz.
We jump between ‘before’ and ‘during’ the pandemic; we never catch a glimpse of the future which I personally found comforting because I’d rather not pin my hopes on a fictional account of a pandemic’s conclusion. Instead, we follow a select group of people; a police officer, his sister and her young son, an author who has written a book about a fictional pandemic (a bit of ‘meta’ that the author could never have planned herself!), a famous musician, a college student blamed for spreading the virus in North America, and a professor who writes on the topic of emergency preparedness. Each character is connected in some way, whether they are are aware of it or not. Some of them do die, and even though I expected this, it’s still sad when it happens because they are so relatable and well-drawn.
This book is not a dystopian account of what a pandemic could be, it’s a character study of how different people react in a global crisis such as this. Some people flee, some hoard, some enter the fray with intentions of helping, some simply continue living their lives just as they had before. I felt so connected to these characters that I was sad to see the book end, I wanted to revisit each of them, see how they were faring, what they were planning to do next.
An important fact you should know about this book is that it was written years ago, but that the descriptions of life are so similar to what we are going through now. Personal protective equipment on public transit, limited trips to the grocery store, people working from home, it’s eerily similar to what we are experiencing now. However, there are a few major differences, one of the most important being the victims of the virus itself. In the book, children are especially susceptible, which adds a layer of panic that made me so incredibly thankful that our current coronavirus doesn’t appear to be particularly dangerous to healthy children. There is also a manhunt for patient zero, which starts innocently enough when a medical professional asks a particular person to come forward and instead she goes into hiding. This search spirals into general racism towards Asian people, which we sadly know it all too real in our current pandemic. Even worse, as I write this, a different kind of racism has reared its ugly head in America, so it seems as though 2020 has many more challenges ahead of us.
Although it seems like an incredibly strange thing to say, this is not a plot-driven novel. The pandemic shapes the characters movements and actions, but the book is not about the virus itself, it’s about our connections to each other and how tenuous they truly are. I found this book calming to read because it doesn’t show us what could happen, it shows us what is happening right now: how people cope with different stressors, the difficult decisions people are faced with, why we all need to be brave, in our own little ways. I understand why some people may avoid reading this book right now, but I do look forward to seeing the reactions of others because I think it’s a beacon of hope that we’re all searching for.