Mclelland & Stewart, 2020
Reviewed by Giovani Ralaisa
Saleema Nawaz’s bestseller Songs for the End of the World presents a world that mirrors our own, complete with a pandemic, self-isolation, reliance on the Web, and the power of human connection.
Nawaz wrote this book from 2013 to 2019 after researching SARS and the Spanish Flu. She created ARAMIS, Acute Respiratory and Muscular Inflammatory Syndrome reminiscent of our own COVID-19, and let it flood her fictional world like “a maelstrom: intense, unseemly.” ARAMIS takes hold late July and spreads between August and December.
Elliot is a first responder in New York who realizes he contracted it at a restaurant and is forced into quarantine. Emma is a pregnant singer preparing to headline a benefit concert for victims of the outbreak, all while questioning what kind of world her child is coming into. Owen is the author of a bestselling plague novel How to Avoid the Plague with eerie similarities to the real-life pandemic. As fact and fiction begin to blur, he must decide whether his lifelong instinct for self-preservation has been worth the cost. Sarah is a pregnant journalist who wants is to interview Owen in a segment. The cast is rounded out by Stu Jenkins, a famous musician, and Keelan, a university professor. Uniting them all is the ARAMIS Girl, an elusive and mysterious woman who has unwittingly spread this infection. As the novel moves back and forth across time, we discover their ties to one another.
Nawaz explores human nature in the face of catastrophe and emphasizes just how interconnected we truly are, whether we like it or not. Through a series of short tales about next-door neighbours, coworkers, partners, and families, Nawaz explores and celebrates each life touched by ARAMIS, from the global fever to finding a cure to ordering a treadmill to keep moving.
From the mundane to the search for the mythical point or origin, Songs for the End of the World is a reminder that only our humanity will save us and that we have to stand united if we want to emerge from darkness and “coalesce into spokes and wheels of light, a pattern that emerges and fades back into the infinite.”
Nawaz is the author of Bone and Bread, winner of the Quebec Writer’s Federation Paragraphe Hugh MacLennaan Prize for Fiction, and a collection of short stories called Mother Superior, which won the Journey Prize. Although she was born and raised in Ottawa, she currently lives in Montreal.