Saturday 4 – Saturday 11 April
I thought this blogpost would be my usual ramble through my life locked away this week. But I was reminded of something much more important, which I want to share with you. And, of course, it’s a book.
So, originally I thought I would be telling you about my missing tooth – a milk tooth that hung in there for 62 years before quietly shedding itself while I wasn’t paying attention.
I thought I might mention my birthday/my darling Shielder husband’s birthday/our 22nd wedding anniversary, all tangled up together on 3 April. About how we took this photoshopped picture of our mutual toast, sitting a good six feet apart.
And so much has happened in the wider world this week, from Boris going into and coming out of intensive care, to Brasil’s Bolsanaro dismissing “the little flu”, and Trump presiding over the disastrous US death rate. In each case people have been left feeling rudderless at a time they might reasonably expect their elected leaders to show fortitude and vision. I’ve been thinking about what happens to a country without leadership at a time of national peril. (Given Boris’ predilection for seeing himself as the direct descendant of Winston Churchill, I was reminded of the brilliant CJ Sansom thriller Dominion, in which Churchill never comes to power in 1940, and so can’t lead Britain through the war. I urge you to find out for yourselves what happens after that!) But what if the fight is between an uncaring all-conquering virus and the whole human race? Surely that’s an unimaginable scenario, until now?
Nope. Someone did imagine it, almost thirty years ago. Connie Willis, the Hugo and Nebula award-winning science fiction writer, wrote a timeslip novel in 1992, Doomsday Book, in which Kivrin, a young time-travelling historian based in near-future Oxford, is sent accidentally to the time of the Black Death in England (1348), and trapped there. Meanwhile, at home in Oxford 2054, a totally unknown and deadly virus strikes.
Spoiler Alert: I won’t give away much more of the plot, except to say that in the book’s parallel timeline Kivrin’s colleagues at Oxford University, including her mentor Dunworthy, have to deal with the sudden eruption of a novel myxovirus. The symptoms are high fever, disorientation, headache, breathing difficulties. Since the disease was previously unknown, there is no effective treatment. Exhaustive steps are taken to trace contacts of Patient Zero. When it becomes apparent the virus has spread far and wide in the brief interval between the patient showing early signs and his hospitalisation, other measures are taken: quarantine; rationing; inadequate PPE; efforts to produce a vaccine, anti-virals, etc.
In both timelines, panic, self-interest and the abdication of responsibility by the authorities occur. Equally, the two main characters, Kivrin in 1348 and Dunworthy in 2054, witness acts of egregious courage and generosity which are not always rewarded. Just like today.
It’s a detailed heart-rending account of life in a time of unknown plague. What makes the book stand out, for me though, is not just the detail and world-building (Willis is the consummate world-builder, apart from allowing the Americanism “muss” to creep in – I forgive her that tiny inaccuracy of British dialect). It’s the way she relates individual acts of charity, love, and professional bravery through the personal relationships her characters develop in the story. This is what gripped me about the book when I first read it, ten years ago. It’s even more powerful now.
Anyone who works in essential services, especially those on today’s hazardous frontline of health and social care, now knows all about pandemics. You’re working day by day in the thick of it, watching your colleagues catch the disease, hoping against hope the protection, such as it is, will be good enough.
If I had my wish, I would make every world leader and politician read this novel. They might just gain an understanding of what a pandemic truly means. They would perhaps realise that they are your servants, not the other way round. If ever a novel was prescient, Doomsday Book has found its place now, in the Time of Coronavirus.