The End of Men by Christina Sweeney-Baird
The Borough Press, hb, £11.99
Reviewed by Sarah Deeming
It starts in a Glasgow hospital. A man comes in with a mysterious illness that claims his life. Two days later, men who were in the hospital at the same time are re-admitted with the same symptoms. All of them die. Slow-moving, Public Health does nothing, giving rumour and fear a chance to spread among the population, who then run to their homes, sometimes getting on planes and boats to do so. Suddenly an isolated sickness is everywhere. Men, boys, and male babies are dying at an alarming rate, and there is no vaccine in sight.
Told primarily through female viewpoints, The End of Men follows a Glasgow A&E doctor Laura, who identifies the Plague. She must navigate through this Plague from the point of discovery to the rebuilding of society after a vaccine. Her story is poignant because of her proximity to the Plague, as well as her loss. I won’t go into too many details, so you can experience her pain for yourself.
There are also snapshots from others struggling to remain sane. Catherine is an anthropologist who collects the stories compiled in the book. Toby Williams is trapped on a cruiser off the Swedish coast with his twin brother slowly starving to death. His wife, Frances, is speaking daily with Swedish authorities to get food to him and the others on the ship safely. Morven must look after 78 teenage boys on her land in Scotland while her son hides in the wilderness, so he is safe from any germs these newcomers might have. Some are complete stories, and others are moments that sometimes made it difficult to remember who was who, but that didn’t get in the way too much. Each of the stories come together in chronological order for a full-flavoured experience of panic, fear, grief, and determination.
The End of Men reflects all sides of humanity. Some handle their situation with determination, wanting to honour the memories of their lost love ones. Others crumble under pressure. Some characters struggle to find meaning, and others realise this epidemic can further their career aspirations.
Sweeney-Baird also explores the impact of the Plague on the LGBTQ community. The survival rate for men is 10% as some have natural immunity, which means gay men have an even smaller pool of potential partners than women. The loneliness of their situation is poignant and thought-provoking. This attention to detail elevates The End of Men bove other apocalyptic stories and into the same untouchable category of brilliance as Max Brookes’ World War Z.
What made The End of Men stand out for me was my proximity to the characters. There is no barely-concealed narrator’s voice telling me who the author believes is right or wrong. The characters speak for themselves, and we are left to make up our minds.
The End of Men is not for the faint-hearted. Written before we’d even heard the words Covid-19, Sweeney-Baird has managed to predict the last year’s events with terrifying accuracy. That said, it is worth all the pain for the uplifting moments of breakthrough, the tender moments of support and compassion, and the moments you can hold the men in your family grateful they are still with you. Highly recommended.