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Literary Lockdowns: The Best Fiction from the Covid-19 Pandemic

Posted on 5th February 2024 by Mark Skinner

As the Margaret Atwood co-curated collaborative novel Fourteen Days is published, we take a look back at how the Covid-19 pandemic was chronicled through literary fiction.    

Whilst coronavirus is still clearly very much amongst us, the dark and surreal days of the early 2020s have receded sufficiently for us to reflect upon the myriad ways lockdowns, restrictions and enforced isolation have shaped our recent history. Throughout the ages, literature has always mined the effects of tumultuous times in an effort to hold a mirror up to society and the individual, so it was inevitable that many novelists and short story writers would feel compelled to produce works which touched upon the Covid-19 pandemic in some way. In addition to books explicitly responding to coronavirus, earlier novels that dealth with pandemics, such as Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven, Stephen King's The Stand and The Plague by Albert Camus, saw an unsurprising upsurge in popularity. 

This month sees the publication of Fourteen Days, a collaborative novel edited by the legendary Margaret Atwood and esteemed non-fiction author Douglas Preston and comprising chapters penned by John Grisham, Celeste Ng, Dave Eggers and more. Framed around a Manhattan apartment block as lockdown is imposed, the novel features stories recounted by the block's residents as they sit on the roof and watch New York City transformed.

Atwood herself has already contributed to The Decameron Project, an anthology of short fiction about the pandemic conceived by The New York Times. Boasting big names - Colm Toibin, David MitchellKamila Shamsie - these dispatches from the peak of the catastrophe are an enduring document of a unique time.       

Roddy Doyle's short story collection Life Without Children is another quietly brilliant and deeply humane volume of miniatures. Casting his net across the whole of society, from keyworkers to the bereaved and beyond, Doyle's characteristically compassionate book deftly conveys the brittle humanity at the heart of a global crisis.

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A breathtaking feat of literary collaboration, Fourteen Days is a spellbinding, Decameronesque novel set in an Lower East Side apartment building at the beginning of the pandemic, with each of its characters written by a different author from a star-studded cast of contributors including Margaret Atwood, Dave Eggers and Celeste Ng.
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From Margaret Atwood to David Mitchell, The Decameron Project brings together 29 stories from some of the finest contemporary authors writing in, of and for the world crippled by the pandemic.
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From the author of Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, these ten perfectly formed short stories about all aspects of lockdown life provide a warm and wise chronicle of the emotional effects of the pandemic.
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Two authors in particular - Ali Smith and Sarah Moss - had already developed a reputation for speedy and insightful responses to current affairs long before the arrival of coronavirus; both Smith's Autumn and Moss' Ghost Wall and Summerwater had confronted the issue of the 2016 EU referendum. So it should come as no surprise that two of the most powerful and disturbing Covid-19 novels are Companion Piece and The Fell. Whilst Smith's novel revels in fable and history it is firmly set in lockdown Britain and deftly addresses the division between mask-wearers and anti-vaxxers that played out so contentiously in real life. The Fell brilliantly captures the anxiety and desperation that isolation engendered through the story of a forbidden walk that turns into something much more significant. Sarah Hall, meanwhile, has been producing exquisitely written fiction for over twenty years now and Burntcoat's tale of a sculptor on the verge of death due to an eerily similar infection to Covid-19 is a profound meditation on love, loss and regret. The boredom and inactivity of lengthy self-isolation and the time and space it affords us to reflect on the past are sublimely realised in Daisy Hildyard's nuanced Emergency

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After providing near-real-time commentary on #MeToo, Brexit, the refugee crisis and a global pandemic in her dazzlingly original Seasonal Quartet, Ali Smith returns with a luminous novel that explores companionship in its innumerable manifestations, as the world continues to change rapidly.
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Doing for coronavirus what Summerwater did for Brexit, Moss’ blazing novel of the state of the nation during the pandemic is characteristically wise, witty and emotionally engaging.
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Suffused with a sensual passion, Hall’s deft novel finds a dying sculptor reflecting on love, lust and lockdown in limpid, impeccably crafted prose.
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Reimagining the pastoral novel for the age of climate crisis, Hildyard's sensual, vividly depicted rural world is evoked through a woman's lockdown memories as the harmony of nature is slowly eroded by pollution and corporate negligence.
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Writers in the United States also had their own distinct takes on the Covid-19 pandemic and how to address the issues and opinions such a dramatic occurence unleashed on American society. Gary Shteyngart, author of such satirical masterpieces as Absurdistan and Lake Success, struck a more compassionate - yet still very funny - tone in his story of a motley collection of individuals locked down in a rambling house Our Country Friends, whilst Jodi Picoult once more demonstrated her rare ability to transform topical events into heartbreaking reflections on human relationships with Wish You Were Here. Louise Erdrich, meanwhile, deftly incorporated the pandemic into a Booker Prize-shortlisted paranormal yarn in The Sentence.

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Brimming with feeling and humour, Shteyngart’s life-affirming comic masterpiece follows a group of individuals who settle in an American country house in early 2020 to wait out the pandemic.
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A poignant tale of longing and discovery from the bestselling author of The Book of Two Ways, Wish You Were Here follows a young woman whose carefully planned life is thrown off course by a pandemic, as she finds herself on a romantic holiday – alone.
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Combining pivotal contemporary events with a deliciously witty ghost story set in a Minneapolis bookshop, The Sentence is a dazzling inventive novel from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Night Watchman.
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Finally we come to thrillers. Concept-wise, lockdown was an absolute gift for authors renowned for page-turning crime novels as it provided the perfect closed-communities for fiendish plotlines. Beloved crime writers such as Elly Griffiths were able to incorporate the claustrophia of enforced isolation into established series, as Ruth Galloway investigates a murder that is very close to home in The Locked Room. It also provided the perfect background for tense psychological thrillers like 56 Days by Catherine Ryan Howard, where toxic relationships burst into the open when couples spend every waking moment in each other's company. And - although it was already written before the Covid-19 pandemic hit - there was something eerily prescient about the publication of Peter May's Lockdown in April 2020, recounting as it does the ravages of a flu-like epidemic in London mere weeks after a real-life lockdown was announced.

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The fourteenth instalment in Griffiths’ bestselling series sees Dr Ruth Galloway on the trail of a mystery very close to home, when an enigmatic photograph sends her to her mother’s Norfolk cottage for a visit that is unexpectedly prolonged by a lockdown.
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A blistering high-concept thriller from the author of The Trap that sees the Covid-19 lockdown facilitate both the development of a new relationship and, quite possibly, the perfect crime.
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Combining a devastating pandemic with a gripping murder mystery plot, Peter May’s high octane thriller is a breathtakingly exciting slice of crime fiction.
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