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Women at the End of the World

The new wave of female-fronted apocalypse novels

Recently, I’ve enjoyed seeking out new writing by women, often written pre-pandemic, that speaks to our current situation. These five books use a sense of impending doom to explore relationships, particularly motherhood.

Not all the protagonists are parents, but one novel is set in a maternity ward and several of the heroines give birth in the aftermath of the apocalypse. These novels also use the end of the world to reflect on love gone wrong and time wasted in unsuitable relationships. Their heroines do what we’ve all done in the pandemic – been forced to go inwards and become more themselves.

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

The earliest of these novels, published in 2014, Station Eleven sets the bulk of its action in a post-pandemic world. The novel begins with a dreamlike tableau from a production of King Lear inspired by a real-life version directed by James Lapine and ends with a community of survivors camped out in an airport. This understated and highly popular book uses devices from the world of theatre to create a haunting and oddly beautiful take on the collapse of civilisation.

The Stranding by Kate Sawyer

Ruth, who shares her name with the protagonist of British nuclear classic Threads, heads to New Zealand after things with her married lover Alex go sour. Drawn to a coastal town by talk of a stranded whale, she meets local man Nick shortly before the aftershock hits. As the light rolls towards them, they climb into the dead whale's mouth for safety. The blast leaves only the bones, some scorched whale meat - and the two of them. A meditation on relationships, motherhood and family, friendship and what makes life worth living.

The End of Men by Christina Sweeney-Baird

There are so many amazing characters in this book I couldn't begin to pick a favourite, though as a queer woman, I loved the lesbian Dr Lisa Michaels demanding a significant financial reward for her vaccine. Dr Michaels doesn't make her discovery until about two years into the male-destroying plague, and the horror and heartbreak are relentless, particularly for Amanda and Cat, whose whistleblowing attempts are thwarted by misogyny.

There is also some sly humour - no men means no Boris Johnson, more great jobs (Dawn, a Black middle-aged civil servant nearing retirement, pretty much ends up running the country) seatbelts and body armour that actually fit, more lesbians (hooray) and less domestic violence. One Eastern European woman, disgusted at her abusive husband's immune status, quietly murders him and has him carried out in a hazmat suit. Of course, the men who do survive think it’s because they’re special – imagine that!

Last One at the Party by Bethany Clift

The Bridget Jones comparisons for this one ignore its far closer relationship to Stephen King’s The Stand, with bodies strewn everywhere. Our hard-drinking heroine is more than conflicted when the combination of the Ebola-Corona crossover plague 6DM (Six Days Max) and an epic hangover releases her from a not-quite-right marriage to James, a man she still loved despite her affair. She goes on a hunt for survivors which involves several road trips and two wish-fulfilment hideouts in a fancy hotel and her GBF’s penthouse. Bethany Clift also writes for TV and film, which didn’t surprise me – every chapter ends on a cliffhanger that made the book nigh-on impossible to put down, despite its anxiety-inducing qualities.

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

No one writes claustrophobia quite like Emma Donoghue (I found myself re-reading and re-watching Room during the pandemic). In the opening scene, set in early twentieth-century Dublin during a flu pandemic, a man hawks up phlegm on the floor of a tram carrying commuters to work. 'Ye might as well have sprayed us with bullets!' moans one of the passengers.

The past has eerie similarities to today (including a culture of victim-blaming, which particularly boils the heroine Julia's blood when she sees posters effectively blaming the sick for their own deaths). The three women that maternity nurse Julia is entrusted with all have difficult labours, and sometimes the descriptions are eye-watering - when a porter tells Julia that women don't pay the 'blood tax' of war, she asks him to look at her ward.

Medical students and geeks will notice that Julia observes correct medical practice and goes above and beyond, even giving a patient her own blood at one point. However, she is given the wrong information at a crucial early point in the book, leading to both love and heartbreak.

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