This month’s book recommendation is The End of October, by Lawrence Wright, the New Yorker staff writer best known for his deeply researched nonfiction (The Looming Tower, about Al-Qaeda and 9/11; Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief). This new book, however, is a novel, although you’ll be forgiven for mistaking it for journalism.
It’s set in a time very much like the present (the US president is “self-conscious about his girth” and keeps a tanning bed in the White House Cosmetology Room—an actual room in the actual White House), in which a viral pandemic spreads from Indonesia to the hajj in Mecca to a submarine under the Atlantic to North America and beyond. Our hero, epidemiologist Henry Parsons, scrambles to decode the virus and prevent its spread while civilization’s institutions crumble on every continent. If the plot is a little overstuffed and the dialogue speech-y, you’re unlikely to care, because the story is so eerily prescient and timely. (Wright began writing the book in 2015 and turned in the manuscript in 2017, long before COVID-19 broke out.) Wright’s journalistic background serves him well: you’ll learn a lot—painlessly—about viral reproduction, cytokine storms, and the workings of submarines. I listened to the audiobook, which is well narrated by Mark Bramhall: it’s the audio equivalent of a page-turner.