Book review: the End of Men by Christina Sweeney-Baird

I wasn’t sure how I felt about reading a story about a pandemic during an actual pandemic but in the end curiosity got the better of me.

Dr Amanda Maclean is called to treat a patient with flu-like symptoms. Within three hours he’s dead. This is how it begins. The unknown virus sweeps through the hospital with deadly speed. The victims are all men. Dr Maclean raises the alarm. But by the time the authorities listen to her, the virus has spread to every corner of the world. Threatening families. Governments. Countries. Can they find a cure before it’s too late?

This speculative novel is imaginative, well written and amazingly prescient, bearing in mind Christina Sweeney-Baird wrote it in 2018, well before the Covid 19 Pandemic. At the time of writing, she says it “felt like the ultimate thought experiment. How far could I take my imagination? How would a global pandemic with an enormous death rate change the world?”

The book’s set in the near future with the pandemic starting in 2025. The victims of this fictional plague are exclusively male, although women can be asymptomatic carriers, so the book is largely about how the world would function without the majority of men.

Although our experience of the real pandemic has made some aspects of the story feel less plausible – for example, children are forcibly evacuated to remote areas and there is a food rationing programme – the fictional pandemic is in some ways uncannily similar.

Patient Zero in Glasgow complains of feeling lethargic and having a headache. After his death his wife “is sobbing over and over again that it was just the flu.”

Amanda the doctor has to battle to be taken seriously. Her emails are ignored by the health authorities with the result that the virus spreads beyond Glasgow and it becomes too late to track who has gone where. “If I had been listened to back then we might have been able to set up effective quarantines and bring it under control.”

The fictional virus doesn’t respond to antivirals and there’s a desperate need for a vaccine. Until one is developed people must “Stay home…Avoid crowds, avoid public transport, for the love of God don’t get on a plane.”

Cancer patients aren’t able to get their treatment. Hospitals won’t accept pandemic patients. “Hospitals used to be a place of kindness and care but now they turn men away if their complaint is the Plague.”

There is panic buying. The Army is brought in to drive ambulances, fire engines and lorries carrying food to supermarkets.

False rumours fly around, for example that Swedes are immune so Sweden is a safe place.

Characters worry about finances. They blame each other for spreading risk and endangering lives. Divisions open up between those who have somewhere else to go and can afford to stop working and those who can’t.

They lock down.

“We stay here in our house, hibernating, hoping to outlast the Plague as if it will recognise our fortitude and strength of will, see our house and go, ‘No, let’s leave them alone. they don’t deserve this.'”

They watch their loved ones die. “The moment is here but I’m not ready. Give me another week, another day, another hour. We haven’t had long enough. We were meant to have a life together, grow old together, have more children together. It can’t be ending yet.”

“Mum, I don’t understand, we haven’t gone anywhere.” I don’t know my darling boy. I don’t know how this happened. I must have caught it when I went outside. I must be the host. I must have gotten too close to you. I’m so sorry.

The story’s told in different viewpoints with lots of emails, which is where it gets a bit disorientating but it feels like a crisis documentary cutting from clip to clip.

The author captures brilliantly the sense of unreality and disbelief as populations sleepwalk into the disaster. For a while shops stay open determined to avoid financial ruin but as Catherine in London says “How can people go into the Liberty Christmas Department and spend Β£30 on a sequinned robin decoration when our husbands, our sons, our fathers, our friends, might all be dying?”

It is in some places a tough read but fundamentally a story about hope and human resilience.

I can’t honestly say I enjoyed reading this book but that’s largely to do with timing. Would I recommend it? If you’re a fan of dystopian fiction that’s in some ways very close to reality, then absolutely!

The End of Men is published by The Borough Press, an imprint of HarperCollins on 29 April 2021. Thanks to the publisher for a review copy via NetGalley.

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