Where the pandemic is central to The Pull of the Stars, in Hamnet it is a dark presence hovering over the book, just as the bubonic plague hovered over England throughout Shakespeare’s lifetime, having begun in the 14th Century as the ‘Black Death’. But it strikes Agnes’s family like lightning, depicted in ominous detail. Young Hamnet sees how sick his twin sister, Judith, is, and questions his mother. “‘She’s got . . . it,’ Hamnet says, in a hoarse whisper, ‘Hasn’t she?’” His hesitation makes clear what “it” means. Agnes knows the symptoms, the buboes, or lumps “straining at the skin” in her daughter’s neck and under her arms. Hamnet is frightened by a figure who appears at the door, “tall, cloaked in black, and in the place of a face is a hideous, featureless mask, pointed like the beak of a giant bird.” This turns out to be the doctor in a protective mask, who will not set foot in the house but delivers a message to the family. They must stay inside until “the pestilence is past.” O’Farrell’s audacious leaps of imagination may be rooted in the 16th Century, and her novel completed before scientists had even heard of Covid-19, but the fear and grief experienced during that era of plague is quite like our own.
The End of October, which Wright began in 2017, is based on research and interviews with scientists who have long seen a pandemic coming. The novel might have landed as a warning, but now its jaw-dropping parallels to the current crisis make it seem prophetic. Wright is a noted journalist who has written books about 9-11 and Scientology, and his novel is less literary in its ambitions than Donoghue’s or O’Farrell’s. Nevertheless, he creates a compelling narrative focused on the fictional Henry Parsons, an infectious disease specialist for the Centers for Disease Control in the US, who travels to Indonesia to investigate the first reports of a new disease. “It could be a coronavirus like Sars or Mers,” Henry speculates. Soon the fictional disease, called Kongoli flu, destroys national economies and sets off global political crises. Henry follows its trail to Saudi Arabia, where Mecca has to be quarantined during the Hajj. In real life, this year the Hajj was cancelled, one of the few points at which reality is not quite as bad as what Henry faces.