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The End of Men is a pandemic-era novel that cuts very close to the bone

Christina Sweeney‑Baird imagines a mystery illness spreading across the globe. The novel is brilliant, says Sadie Robinson—and dilemmas raised are all too familiar
Issue 2754
The cover of Christina Sweeney-Bairds novel The End of Men

The cover of Christina Sweeney-Baird’s novel The End of Men

This is a stunning book with an unfortunately horribly familiar theme—how to cope with a deadly pandemic.

The first inkling of a serious ­problem comes at a hospital in Glasgow. A couple of men die in quick succession and it isn’t really clear why.

Amanda, a doctor at the hospital, recognises that there is a lethal virus that only kills men but can be carried by women. But her warnings are ­initially ignored—letting the virus spread across the globe.

There are eerie echoes of ­coronavirus. There is panic as people scrabble to adjust to a world where everything must be disinfected, social contact limited, masks worn, and so on. The book is great at describing the awful impact on individuals.

Catherine is living in London with her husband Anthony and son Theodore when the pandemic hits. She loses both of them. The description of how this happens, and her long-term grief that follows, is heartbreaking.

The book gets across how class shapes the impact of the pandemic, using characters in different countries in wildly different circumstances.

What it also does really well is to investigate what the disappearance of the majority of men would actually mean. For instance, some ­resistance movements initially make gains because there aren’t the state forces available to contain them. Armies and police forces are collapsing.

Women have to retrain in numerous different roles to keep many sectors of society going.

There are moral questions and ­dilemmas that don’t have easy answers. Newborn male babies are removed from their mothers and kept in a sterile environment, until ­hopefully a vaccine is found.

The forcible removal of the ­children, done without the mothers’ prior knowledge, sounds barbaric. But then again, it also means their children will live.

Laws force some people deemed safe to house boys and try and shield them from the plague—with the threat of jail if they refuse. Is this a necessary act of force to try and save humanity, or is it a trashing of civil liberties?

Christina Sweeney-Baird has ­created a riveting novel full of difficult questions and fascinating characters. For people who have lost loved ones during the actual pandemic, this could be too hard a read. But for anyone who won’t find it too anxiety-provoking, I definitely recommend it.

The End of Men by Christina Sweeney‑Baird is out now

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