Fiction Reviews

The End of October

(2020) Lawrence Wright, Black Swan, £8.99, pbk, xi + 461pp, ISBN 978-1-784-416574-1


Usually when I write a review I outline the first quarter of the novel's plot first and then add a few paragraphs of comment as to where the book lies on the genre's landscape and so forth. With The End of October I am going to do the reverse. This is because as we have currently (2021) had 18 months of the SARS-CoV-2 / CoVID-19 disruption perhaps the last thing anyone would want to read would be a technothriller concerning a global pandemic. Yet The End of October is a little special and deserves some attention given that it was written in 2019 prior  to the current pandemic and without knowledge that one was going to take place as this book's hardback edition hit the bookshops that would themselves close due to lockdown.

This is all well and good, but there have been many global pandemic books over the decades (including Blood Music, The Dog Stars and I am legend, Station Eleven).  Some even released the same year as The End of October that floundered because, after many months of mounting CoVID-19 deaths, we are all knowledgeable of epidemiology basics, we can see they got the science so wrong. (For example, Goldilocks.) Conversely, where The End of October really scores is that it is so spot on.

This novel mentions PPE (personal protection equipment) and ventilator supply issues, self-isolation, variolation, zoonoses, super-spreading events, panic buying, possible laboratory origins, floundering politicians, variants amongst much else with which we are now all too familiar. In fact about the only thing significantly wrong was the difficulty generating a vaccine (which fortunately for SARS-CoV-2 was so easy) but even here the author actually got this right given the novel's seven-month time frame.

Perhaps the reason why the author got things so right is that he is an acclaimed (Pulitzer Prise winning) journalist used to fact-checking and research.  With The End of October it is evident that he has put the hours in ensuring he could get things as right as possible.

But is this simply a mirror to the current SARS-CoV-2 outbreak? Fortunately, no: that would be boring. There are differences including, as we eventually find out, the outbreak's true origins.  Also, in the novel the pandemic incurs increased military tension across the globe.  Of course, in the real world we have also seen increased military tension, but that is due to Russia's relationship with Ukraine, China's with its neighbours and Hong Kong, the festering sore that is the Middle East and Afghanistan due to US intervention decades before the current outbreak, amongst the usual poverty and corruption driven rebellions in the southern hemisphere. It is not due to SARS-CoV-2.

So what's the book about?  Well actually, you need only a little lead in…

Doctor Henry Parsons, at the behest of the World Health Organisation, investigates a lethal outbreak of a fever at an Indonesian internment camp, he finds that it is caused by a highly infectious and lethal virus. Yet already some have left the camp and the disease is out…

If you feel that a pandemic novel will give you some sort of cathartic release from the current CoVID shenanigans, then you could do no better than The End of October.

Jonathan Cowie


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