The best books about pandemics

The Books I Picked & Why

The Plague

By Albert Camus

Book cover of The Plague

Why this book?

You can’t talk about pandemic novels without referencing the granddaddy of them all - The Plague by Albert Camus. I loved this book so much I named one of my lead characters Bernard, after the hero in the book. The plot: a small town in Algeria is affected by an outbreak of plague, and a group of town folk work together to try to overcome their helplessness in the face of death. They deal with some very recognisable problems – corruption, bureaucracy, quarantine… Some people have read the book as really being about the French resistance to the German occupation during World War Two. Either way, it’s a very relatable read, and sales of it went through the roof during the early days of Covid!

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Station Eleven

By Emily St. John Mandel

Book cover of Station Eleven

Why this book?

This is one of my all-time favourite novels. It opens with an actor dying on stage, on what turns out to be one of the first days of a new deadly flu epidemic. The disease then goes on to kill most of the world’s population. The book follows a group of travelling performers, who, post-pandemic, travel round the remaining settlements putting on Shakespeare plays. Using multiple viewpoints, the stories cleverly interlink, and in The Prophet, Mantel has created a truly creepy villain. Lyrical and witty, Station Eleven gives an unusually optimistic view of life after a pandemic.

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Death is a Welcome Guest

By Louise Welsh

Book cover of Death is a Welcome Guest

Why this book?

Louise Welsh has written three novels about a pandemic called the Sweats – her Plague Times trilogy. This is the second book in the series. I particularly liked this one because its protagonist, Magnus, is a Scottish not-very-good stand-up comedian, and I too was once a not-very-good aspiring comic! After a series of unfortunate events, Magnus ends up in prison, where the disease is rife. Breaking out, he decides to make for his childhood home on Orkney, accompanied by fellow escapee Jeb. The fast-moving plot will keep you racing through this book.

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Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World

By Laura Spinney

Book cover of Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World

Why this book?

I read this book as background reading for writing my own virus-based novel, and it was an absolutely fascinating study of the response to a pandemic that took place almost exactly a century ago. It covers everything from the role of the First World War troops’ demobilisation on spreading the virus, to the impact of poverty on infection rates, to why young, fit people were the most likely to die of the illness. And, of course, why it was called Spanish Flu in the first place (spoiler alert: not because it came from Spain!)

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To Calais, in Ordinary Time

By James Meek

Book cover of To Calais, in Ordinary Time

Why this book?

I’d never read a book quite like this one before. Set in 1348, the pandemic setting for this book is, of course, the Black Death. A gentlewoman, her servant, and a group of soldiers travel across England, only slowly becoming aware of how much danger they are in, as the disease lays waste to the population. Be warned, it is written in an Olde English dialect which takes a little while to get used to. It’s well worth sticking with it, though, because the characters are beautifully drawn, and you will be rooting for them every inch of the way, as they attempt to out-ride their fate.

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