“He should have known better. How quickly he’d forgotten a fundamental truth: the closer you get to the heart of calamity, the more resilience there was to be found.”
In the summer of 2020, New York City police officer Elliot Howe finds himself in quarantine after he learns that he was exposed to a novel coronavirus brought to the United States by a visiting teacher at his martial arts gym. As Elliot watches from his window, New York is gripped by ARAMIS—Acute Respiratory and Muscular Inflammatory Syndrome—and the hunt for ARAMIS Girl, a young Asian woman falsely believed to be patient zero for the outbreak. Songs for the End of the World also follows Owen Grant, a writer who is reluctantly drawn into the spotlight because he wrote a novel that seemed to predict the ARAMIS outbreak, and Emma Aslet, a singer-songwriter who is planning an ARAMIS relief fundraiser while she is expecting her first child. Weaving back and forth in time, and following a cast of loosely connected characters, Songs for the End of the World explores family and human connection in pandemic times.
Canadian novelist Saleema Nawaz wrote and then revised this book, her second novel, between 2013 and 2019. Looking to the past, she based her research on SARS, MERS, Ebola, and the 1918 influenza pandemic. Originally scheduled for publication in August 2020—the same month the events of the novel begin—it was published digital-first in April 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the globe. The print edition was released as scheduled on August 25, 2020 in Canada by McClelland & Stewart. As of this writing, the novel does not have an American publisher or US publication date.
The novel is set mainly over a five month period from August to December 2020, but with flashbacks to periods between 1999 and 2016. Most of the flashbacks happen in the first half of the book, delaying the sense of settling into the pandemic with interludes of normalcy. In the flashbacks, we see Owen beginning to write his pandemic novel just as his marriage starts to fall apart, follow Stu Jenkins beginning his career as a musician, and accompany the Aslet family as they circumnavigate the globe on their sailboat while Y2K draws closer, and join Elliot’s sister Sarah as she reveals to their parents that she has chosen to have a baby by herself.
Songs for the End of the World is a pandemic novel, but not a post-apocalyptic one. Certain parallels can definitely be drawn to the work of fellow Canadian novelist Emily St. John Mandel; Station Eleven came out in 2014 and was a pandemic novel that also featured a large cast of characters and employed a complex timeline. However, Songs for the End of the World does not destroy our society before offering the hope of rebuilding, but instead considers resilience in place. In this novel, it is those who try the hardest to isolate and escape who pay the heaviest price, while those families that turn towards one another find the capacity to heal old wounds and build new bonds as they grapple with the strange new world they suddenly find themselves living in.
As omniscient as Songs for the End of the World seems, it does differ from our current circumstances in important ways. Family is a key theme of the novel, one that Nawaz strikes at by having children be extremely susceptible to ARAMIS, and at the greatest risk of dying from the new disease. Elliot’s sister Sarah is desperate to protect her young son Noah—so desperate that she agrees to join Owen on his recently purchased sailboat to ride out the pandemic in isolation. Emma gives birth to her first child in the midst of the pandemic, as does Elliot’s ex-wife’s new partner, Julia. Another character faces the fact that the child she chose to have by herself would be alone if something happened to her during the pandemic, and another discovers offspring he was previously unaware of. Each in their way faces the question of what it means to bring new life into this world, with all its flaws and dangers.
Although Nawaz wrote this novel in a world where COVID-19 was not a reality, none of us will ever be able to read the book from that perspective. For better or for worse, my reading of this story is inevitably coloured by the reality of living through a real pandemic while reading about a fictional one. Although I’ve read a number of non-fiction pandemic books this year, Songs for the End of the World marks my first foray into fictional pandemics since COVID-19 began. As such, I was struck by the accuracy of Nawaz’s research, and the myriad ways that her ARAMIS outbreak mirrors our current circumstances down to the very smallest details of social distancing and public reaction and controversy. At times the meta-ness of the book was almost too much to bear—a fault of the world, not the writer. Like Owen, Nawaz has unexpectedly found herself the author of a pandemic novel that has suddenly come true. But unlike Owen, Nawaz sees connection and hope. “We may need to isolate at home, but it is not a time for isolationism,” she warns in the interview included at the ended of the book; “we need to come together in solidarity.”
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