Five Best Pandemic Novels

I’ve read many, many pandemic books, but these are my five standouts.

Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague, by Geraldine Brooks. The first novel by this now celebrated Australian author was published in 2002 and holds up as a powerful story about class, privilege, and what it means to have one’s life changed by circumstances utterly beyond oneself. Beautifully and delicately written, the book charts a year in the life of a woman during the time of the Black Death in a small English village. Her life is transformed by the events of the year as she confronts death, disaster, and love. In the humble way of telling a large scale story by focusing on a single strand, a single life, the reader also is filled with the wonder of what can come out of the grimmest of circumstances.

The Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis. Another book set in the time of the Black Death, but this one speculative fiction involving time travel, from a near future where an Oxford History department sends its brightest students into the past, to study momentous historical events first hand. The student sent to the time of the plague finds herself trapped, and immune to the disease spreading through the village that has housed and cared for her. Everyone she knows is either impossibly far in the future or succumbing to the plague’s horrors. Gripping and memorable, with an intricate and excruciating slow pace, we suffer through looking up close with her, much closer than history normally takes its scholars.

The Country of Ice Cream Star, by Sandra Newman. I included this book in my Five Best in the year I read it, but it’s worthy of another mention. If you didn’t read it then, read it now. Ice Cream Star is the name of the main character, a fifteen year old girl, living in a devastated America where everyone over the age of twenty has died in a mysterious plague, that still rages. Her quest to find an antidote, to save her beloved older brother provides the backdrop for this extraordinary exploration into what it means to pack all of your life into a few years, the intensity of love, war, risk, and heroism and the almost unbearable tenderness of these young adults towards the babies and younger children they care for and the remains of the world they live in. It’s not – quite – written in English, as we know it. Ice Cream Star’s voice teaches us this variant of the language, as she explains her world, her life, and her mission.

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel. The plague in this novel killed 99.9% of the human population and swept across the globe when the main character was a child. We follow various characters through those first days and months, visiting them as the years and decades pass, but it is Kirsten’s story that threads the others together. Perhaps this is my absolute favourite of the five, and I can’t entirely explain why. I love the skill of the story, the different strands weaving closer and closer together with utter grace and inevitability, perhaps it is because one of its themes is the place of art in human society but I think it’s probably because of the Travelling Symphony, a band of players – half musicians, half actors – who wander the post-pandemic world playing classical music and Shakespearian plays to the tiny settlements along their dangerous route, like medieval players carrying also news and warnings as well as entertainment and a reminder of civilisation as it once was. Their motto: Survival is Insufficient.

Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood. This is the first book of a trilogy, which it’s good to read in order, though really I preferred the second and third instalments. This pandemic has devastated the world we know and – unlike the other four books I’ve chosen – the story is set in and around cities and larger populations, a much more challenging topic. It explores a potential future where genetic engineering of food has run rampant and the societal consequences and fallout. Its characters are strange, riveting, and memorable and its plotlines complex. If you liked Handmaid’s Tale, try this for Atwood pushing even further into her questions around the choices we make and allow others to make. More than any of the other books on this list, it’s writing into the future. I’m thinking I need to re-read it…