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Pickle Me This

September 10, 2020

Songs for the End of the World, by Saleema Nawaz

Book Cover for SONGS FOR THE END OF THE WORLD

When Saleema Nawaz’s Songs for the End of the World was published as an e-book in May, I wasn’t ready for it. I couldn’t do it. A book about a novel coronavirus that sweeps across the world in 2020, beginning in China, and then exploding in New York City. Fiction as uncanny as all-get-out (the novel was written between 2013 and 2019—um, and it includes in its cast of characters a novelist whose book about a pandemic is proving eerily similar to real life events—I KNOW!) but I was having enough trouble facing such things in the world. Plus I don’t have an e-reader…

It was with great hope that I was planning to read the book when it came out in print in August. Hoping the world might seem more recognizable then, Nawaz’s story of a pandemic not quite so close to home, or perhaps that I would be able to put some distance between it and my own situation. And I am so glad that all this transpired, because I liked this novel so much, found it utterly absorbing, and rich.

I suppose it’s not so uncanny how prescient the book seems (it’s Nawaz’s third, following short story collection Mother Superior and the novel Bone and Bread) considering Nawaz based her own pandemic on disease models and intervention strategies. (She was also able to intuit that after a handful of days of quarantine, a person would inevitably order a treadmill.) In a Q&A at the end of the book, she goes into interesting detail about her process, and also writes about how while she didn’t necessarily set out to counter typical disaster narratives, she wanted to “explore…how the stories we tell can influence our behaviour in the real world, for better or for worse.”

(This reminded me of my favourite line from Ali Smith’s Autumn: “…whoever makes up the story makes up the world.” )

What’s most absorbing about the novel is not the pandemic plot, however. First, it is the sentences. “Calamity began, as usual, on an ordinary day. The city roiled with the amplified impatience of a million insomniacs, sleeping children breathed polluted air, low-level exploitation crept across neighbourhoods with insectile persistence, and a thousand everyday kindnesses failed to rise to the surface of consciousness.” How is that for an opener?

And second is the characters, beginning with Elliott, the first responder in Manhattan; Owen, a novelist whose novel appears belatedly on bestseller lists when the pandemic starts; Stu, an indie rockstar whose bandmate and wife, Emma, is pregnant; Sarah, a single mother, who contemplates her future with her child; Keelan, a philosopher whose on work on disasters has resonance for an audience that’s desperate for hope. Moving back and forth between the contemporary moment and pivotal events from the characters’ pasts (young Emma aboard a years-long sea voyage with her eccentric family as her mother freaks out about Y2K), Nawaz has each character singularly navigating the pandemic crisis, but also shows the ways in which these characters’ lives are intertwined in an intricate web, sometimes in ways the characters themselves aren’t even aware of.

She conjures the world in this book, perhaps more specifically than she ever intended, and therein lies the novel’s power. That it’s not the end of the world too—such a lazy cliche. Life and love continue on.

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