The Best Fiction Books About Pandemics

If misery loves company, those of us stuck at home during the COVID-19 lockdown will love these compelling works of fiction about pandemics. (Not that being stuck at home at all equates to the misery felt by people actually suffering from sickness or from those spread thin on the front lines fighting it, but I categorically reject the fallacy of relative privation, so you feel however you need to feel in these times and others.)

While the pandemic currently plaguing the world is new and strange in many ways, it bears many of the hallmarks of all past (and surely future) strife; be it war, famine, plague, or other times of struggle, compelling stories emerge. We read of doctors, nurses, drivers, and others who refuse to be cowed by the threat they face, knowing their work keeps others safe and indeed alive. We watch videos of communities coming together, even as, this time, that means drawing apart. And of course, we hear stories of suffering, pain, and death.

Candidly speaking, hard times breed good stories. And whether those hard times were entirely imagined by an author or an author uses real periods of suffering as a backdrop for a story, many a good tale has been set during a global pandemic. Here are seven of them that will take you away from the real coronavirus of our reality and deliver you into the relatable stories of imagined men, women, and children.

A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe

A Journal of the Plague Year - Daniel Defoe

Although Defoe was a boy of only five when the Great Plague of London ravaged England’s capital in 1665, clearly the event left an impression on the man who would author many famed books, including Robinson Crusoe. This account was initially thought to be more or less nonfiction, cribbed from notes in a journal of Defoe’s uncle, but it is today accepted as a fictionalized telling of very real events. His story of that horrid event, though first published just shy of 300 years ago, will still move the modern reader, because suffering and death are suffering and death in any age.

Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O’Nan

Prayer for the Dying - Stewart O'Nan

In the real world, the Spanish flu outbreak ravaged the world shortly after the charnel house that was World War I had ended. In O’Nan’s work of fiction, a sickness ravages a town in the days shortly following after the American Civil War. The protagonist of this slender volume, Jacob Hansen, has a unique perspective on the suffering being wrought as he is pastor, sheriff, and undertaker for his small town. As his people are beset by illness, Hansen finds his own once-solid sense of self crumbling in concert.

As Bright as Heaven by Susan Meissner

As Bright as Heaven - Susan Meissner

This compelling family drama was published just one year before the COVID-19 pandemic set in, yet it is set in the time of the Spanish flu pandemic one hundred years prior. As is the case with many books about times of sickness, unrest, and war, the epidemic sets the stage, onto which a family beset by tragedy yet resilient in the face of pain and loss makes their way. The book touches on themes ranging from coming of age to letting go after death and much in between.

The Plague by Albert Camus

The Plague - Albert Camus

Spoiler alert: This book is not actually about a plague. It tells the story of a sickness devastating the coastal city of Oran, Algeria, but it’s actually an allegory for the suffering inflicted by the Nazis just a few short years before it was first published in 1947. Knowing that only makes the story more powerful, however. Within its pages, you will encounter the most heart-rending scenes of death (one child’s suffering and end, in particular, will stay with you) but also moments of the deepest human connection (look for the talk two men have while out for an evening swim).

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

The Dog Stars - Peter Heller

Most post-apocalyptic books are set after a war ruined the planet, but a few fine examples are set in the proverbial ashes of a pandemic. This is the latter. Through the eyes of the lonely protagonist, a man who has lost friends, family, and any chance of normal life in a world now scarcely populated and largely with men gone savage at that, we see hope glimmer through even in the face of long odds.

The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton

The Andromeda Strain - Michael Crichton

Leave it to the late, great Michael Crichton to come up with a premise that sounds initially too far-fetched to resonate and then create a story that will have you gripping every page. In this now half-century-old novel, a space probe accidentally brings an alien virus down to earth and soon ravages the world population. There is the standard Big Military-type response with Top Secret this and that, but Crichton also created plenty of “real” identifiable characters who make the story as moving as its premise is wild.

The End of October by Lawrence Wright

The End of October - Lawrence Wright

In yet another example of life and fiction becoming blurred, this novel was published as the COVID-19 pandemic surged. The illness in Wright’s pandemic is not a respiratory illness but a hemorrhagic fever, but still, it will resonate. The action takes the reader to such far-flung locations as Indonesia and Mecca, as well as Atlanta, Georgia, and as with many of the fine books on this list, we experience much of the global suffering through the viewpoints of a few characters, each of whom bring a unique perspective based on their life experience before the sickness came.

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