First up are Sarah Hall's Burntcoat and Gary Shteyngart's Our Country Friends.
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In March 2020, Twitter was loaded with discussions of Station Eleven, the 2014 apocalyptic-flu novel by Emily St. John Mandel, as readers scrambled to satisfy their morbid curiosity about the emerging coronavirus pandemic. Now 20 months on, as the suspense of pandemic thrillers has faded into more of an existential dread and enough time has lapsed in the literary life cycle, the novels that were written during the early months of quarantine are starting to come to light.

In Gary Shteyngart's Our Country Friends (out Nov. 2), the pandemic is a plot device skillfully employed — a way to bring characters into a compound upstate, and keep them there along with the anxieties and social mishaps that have become central to our newly distanced lives. It's a funny novel, full of navel-gazing players: the notable but financially strapped novelist working on a big-screen adaptation, the neurotic actor who is his reluctant collaborator, the wealthy creator of a matchmaking app. The story of their lives unfolds over six months in isolation, but the deadly virus is no mere prop. It lies in wait, unloading itself in tragic fashion.

Our Country Friends by Gary Shteyngart; Burntcoat by Sarah Hall
'Our Country Friends,' by Gary Shteyngart, and 'Burntcoat,' by Sarah Hall
| Credit: Random House; Custom House

The virus is both deeply ominous and not the least bit surprising in Burntcoat (Nov. 2), Booker Prize nominee Sarah Hall's portrait of an artist who, still reeling from her mother's tragic accident, falls in love just before a pandemic sweeps the planet. The disease's name and symptoms are different, but the societal fallout (quarantines, mass layoffs, anarchists unleashed) mirror our current nightmare. Hall gives us the narrator's story, told in riveting, doom-filled fragments; it captures the helplessness, devotion, and sheer horror that overtook the lives of real-life COVID-19 caretakers.

Perhaps more triggering are the codas: The splashy novels of late 2021 are turning to the pandemic in their endings. In Apples Never Fall, the latest domestic page-turner from Liane Moriarty, the central family recalibrates following a murder scare; elderly parents defy social distancing, to their adult children's exasperation. Sally Rooney's Beautiful World, Where Are You checks in with its characters in the height of lockdown nearly a year after the main story ends, adding an element of anxiety to a novel already laden with the ills of modern life. This pattern is likely a well-intentioned attempt to accurately reflect These Times, or maybe authors yearning for a way to wade through their feelings. They're allowed to be burned out (especially Rooney), and the savviest creators know to channel pain into page counts.

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