- 04 May 21
Goodbye To The XY
This may sound familiar. It’s the year 2025. There’s a viral outbreak, which sweeps across the world, claiming victims from every social strata. Run if you like, but it probably won’t do you any good. At least it won’t if you were unfortunate enough to have been born a man, for while this particular bug is fatal to over 90% of the male population, it has no physical effect on women, although they can still be carriers. Yes, yes, calm down at the back, there are several members of my own family who would doubtless be cheering too.
To be serious, Sweeney-Baird speaks to this in an author’s note that's offered by way of an introduction. “It’s an understatement to say it feels surreal that I wrote a book about a pandemic disproportionately affecting men just before a pandemic disproportionately affecting men swept the world," she says. “More than one person has half-jokingly called me Cassandra.” The plot of The End Of Men does indeed betray the insight of a prophetic priestess. In the before times, Catherine is late picking up her son from childcare and wondering if she should dress up for Halloween for his sake. The everyday stuff that was all we used to have to worry about. Dr Amanda MacLean is having her usual busy time of it in a Glasgow A & E when a patient who seems to have flu symptoms dies when his whole body shuts down. His death reminds her of an older man who expired a few days earlier after being flown down from the Isle of Bute. It’s then discovered that patients are presenting who were in the hospital at the same time, and when one her colleagues who was also working that day is brought in by ambulance, she realises something is very wrong. She sends emails further up the chain. These emails are ignored.
You can see where this is going, which is not to say that Sweeney-Baird doesn’t take us there in fine style. Within weeks, thousands have succumbed. Travel restrictions are imposed but only after the horse of a bug has bolted and we all know that story. The first half of the book is both a gripping thriller and a heartbreaker. There’s a rush to get out of the cities, as husbands, fathers, sons and brothers are lost and the families of Amanda and Catherine are not immune either. There can be no greater pain than the loss of a child, and that pain is conveyed sympathetically and with devastating effectiveness. Later on, in maternity wards, no help is given or resources wasted on baby boys; they must either prove themselves immune, or die.
Catherine makes a run for it, to Devon, with her young son. A desperate man breaks into the house, she lies to him that she’s a carrier. He turns and runs. She cannot help but smile. “I have never felt so powerful. This must be what men used to feel like. My mere physical presence is enough to terrify someone into running. No wonder they used to get drunk on it.”
This soliloquy should indicate what we are dealing with here, a completely changed world. As work continues on a vaccine, Sweeney-Baird speculates on what might happen in a society almost devoid of male input. On a local level, a draft is needed to fill roles in everything from the army to refuse collection to keeping the power on. Further afield, the Chinese regime falls and civil war breaks out, authorities in New Zealand are taking even less chances than they have in our real world, and Scotland wastes no time in declaring its independence, which may or may not be wish fulfilment on the author's part. There are further social changes as a new female/female dating app proves wildly popular, and there’s proof too that you don’t have to be a man to be an arsehole – although it probably helps – as the race for a cure heats up. I thought that nation was famed for being nice?
The tale is told - and told well - in first person diary entries by the people involved, in a way that reminded me of Max Brooks’ excellent World War Z, a book about a different kind of outbreak, so not only do we get Catherine and Amanda's arcs, we also get regular reports from journalist Maria 'Exposition' Ferreira. We also see things from the Dawn's point of view, as she rises quickly through the ranks of British Intelligence now that there are less people in the way. This cleverly allows us insider access as governments try to get a handle on things. We even hear of one woman who quite rightly uses the pandemic as a way of disposing of an abusive spouse. The End Of Men would be a welcome read at any time but coming after the last year and a bit, it will surely resonate widely, and fly off the shelves accordingly. I'd say the good people at Harper Collins were calling up the printers and offering to collect it by hand. That being said, some might perhaps howl that a pandemic novel is the very last thing they'd want to be relaxing with right now, but they would be missing out.