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The End of October by Lawrence Wright

OK. I’ll admit it. Not only do I love eschatological narratives (I think Stephen King had it right when he spoke of people enjoying the horror genre because it connects them with their own sense of mortality and revivifies them – something like that. End of world narratives while sometimes classified speculative, share many characteristics with horror – I think revivifying the reader is certainly one of them), but at a time when we’re in lockdown because of Covid-19, a Twenty-First Century plague, this book seemed to be the perfect companion – but gird your loins. 

Pulitzer prize winning author, Lawrence Wright (The Looming Tower – a non-fiction book about the battle of information between the CIA and FBI in the lead up to 9/11, also an amazing and confrontational series on Amazon Prime), who finished this book – which is about a modern-day novel Coronavirus that sweeps the globe – a year ago, has been described as “prescient”. Wright, in typical humble fashion, claims Ridley Scott gave him the idea to write an apocalyptic narrative and that all he did, was “listen to the experts.” Something I suspect many wish their leaders also did. 

This is the story of a virus called Kongali that appears to start in a refugee camp in Indonesia. Deadly and highly contagious, when an Indonesian man on a pilgrimage to Mecca takes the disease with him – a place where over three million Muslims worship – the ground is set for a pandemic the experts saw coming, but no-one is prepared for. Virologist, the clever Henry Parsons, with a dark past of his own, determines to find not only the source of the outbreak but a cure, before it’s too late. But with global geo-politics on the brink of war, and leaders falling and societies collapsing as the death toll enters the millions, will there be anything left to cure?

A fast-paced, fascinating insight into the world of the virologist, epidemiologists and those who work for organizations like the CDC, WHO and Medicine sans Frontieres, etc. Huge in scope and unapologetic in its politics (which completely mirror what we understand), the book is also relatable, mainly due to Parsons and his family who personalize the big picture events and their shocking impact. We understand their confusion, their fears, their desperation and wish that when people are faced with such overwhelming catastrophe, they’d just be kinder. But the novel describes so many things to which we’ve all borne witness: the hoarding, selfishness, xenophobia, rise of the right, scapegoating, violence, breakdown of civility etc. as well as extraordinary acts of generosity and humanity. 

Prescient is one word to describe this book, shocking is another for, as you read the novel, then turn to the news, there are terrible parallels, giving the experience a frisson you don’t always get with books. What it also reminds you is how frail our systems are, how vulnerable humanity is for all that we appear to have and to have achieved. Wright also makes the reader aware of the natural world and the way in which humans have plundered it for their own ends, for greed and personal power, something that when a global pandemic erupts, seem inconsequential and fruitless. 

I learned a great deal reading this book – the science is excellent, the premise all too real and the plot thrilling. Truth in this instance isn’t stranger than fiction, but echoes it in eerie ways. Don’t read if you fear it might trigger you, but I found it reassuring in some ways and always, always a page-turner. 

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