The End of Men is the story of a near-future pandemic in which there is a flu-like virus which is fast-spreading and deadly – but only to men. By the end of the pandemic, only one in ten men has survived. The novel follows a number of different characters in brief chapters where they recount their experiences of the pandemic and how their lives have changed.
The End of Men is unlucky in being published at a time when we are all armchair experts on what actually happens in a pandemic. There’s an explanatory note from Sweeney-Baird explaining that she wrote it before the real one struck, although there might have been some last-minute edits – there’s a single reference to “social distancing” which sits oddly given the disease she describes.
The disease is first identified by a Glasgow A&E consultant Amanda MacLean, but not recognised by the authorities. I found myself wondering why, if the virus spreads so (two days for incubation and then another two days for death) it took the authorities so long to get on the case. Amanda goes on singlehandedly to pursue the truth of how Patient Zero was infected, because without that, she knows there can be no vaccine (of course we all know differently).
There were some other things I found hard to believe, one being the swathes of medical staff, including Amanda, who refuse to go into work. That’s not to say it never happens, but in the context of the novel it is shown as normal, rather than exceptional, and jars with the evidence of recent pandemics. (We know a number of healthcare professionals have lost their lives to COVID-19.)
The stories of loss and grief – husbands, sons, fathers, aren’t as moving as they might have been because the narrative flits between characters. The losses feel abstract to the reader. It’s the imagined aftermath of the pandemic that is more interesting, but again, the net is cast wide rather than deep.
There are a couple of references to what is happening abroad, including political upheaval in China, on the basis that a society previously dominated by a male military would be unable to repress women campaigning for democracy.
Sweeney-Baird seems pretty down on Scotland. In this future it is independent but its public bodies are either incompetent or isolated from bigger international alliances, while the English/Welsh government is focused and purposeful in reallocating work to the surviving women. I’m sure many of us contrasting the performance of the Johnson and Sturgeon governments over the last year would happily take the Holyrood approach.
Women are reallocated to suitable work in a conscription system. She talks at one point of a shortage of electricians but doesn’t really think through how the world would change with a significant loss of men. In the West, at least, men dominate in roles like tech, engineering and construction. Women could do these jobs, but it would take time. What would happen to, say, the internet, transport infrastructure, housing in the meantime? Would the lights go out? Would everyone pull together or be torn apart?
She does reference how the world, over time, comes to be more female friendly, using examples that sound like they’ve been cribbed from Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women – the size of phones, the diagnosis of heart attacks, the rate of car accidents.
It’s in the area of sex and relationships that I was most incredulous. The response to the shortage of men made me think of Virginia Nicholson’s Singled Out – which described how young British women, particularly the middle classes, were left after the First World War with the knowledge that most of their male peers had been wiped out. Then, there were both social taboos and technological limitations that meant most women wouldn’t have children alone, or openly form relationships with women (although, of course, many did), or even marry outside their class.
In The End of Men, everyone is terribly stoical and reasonable (for that reason it also made me think of Nevil Shute’s On the Beach)! Some women find female partners through dating apps, while the surviving men are surprisingly reluctant to exploit their new found scarcity. Many remain faithful to their wives. Childless women are willing to wait obediently for the state to grant them an allocation of sperm for IVF. Sweeney-Baird doesn’t seem to take on board that a shortage of men is not the same as a shortage of sperm.
I’m sure plenty of men would be willing to take matters into their own hands, so to speak, and that women desperate for a child would be inseminated through private arrangements, either artificial or traditional. (Perhaps when the resulting children grew up, there would have to be an app, like the one in Iceland, so the next generation could check whether they were related to their potential dates).
The End of Men is very readable but the number of narrators means their stories are not developed. Many of them are giving an account after the event which means the sense of immediacy and drama are lost. Despite the fact that they are drawn from across the world and the narrative incorporates letters, journals and magazine articles, they all have the voice of a middle-class Western woman, which is probably why the characters of Amanda and Catherine, a London-based anthropologist, are the most successful.
What I did enjoy about The End of Men is that it got me thinking about some of the issues that would be thrown up by a shortage of men and boys, and asking some questions, even if I didn’t agree with the author’s answers.
I received a copy of The End of Men from the publisher via Netgalley.
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