The novel Quarantine began its journey into print six years ago and yet has proved to be prescient in predicting humanity’s struggle against a virus, says Paul English 

THE world as we knew it changed in 2020. But Nick Holdstock has been living in a pandemic longer than most of us.

The Edinburgh author has been immersed in a world of vaccines, quarantine, face masks and highly contagious viruses since the days when corona was still just a beer with a slice of lime wedged in the bottle.

Nick first put pen to paper on his novel, Quarantine, six years ago, imagining a fictional scenario where all of humanity is challenged by the emergence of a disease which sweeps the globe.

By the time the first draft was finished, his fiction had become reality with the emergence of Covid 19.

“When I came back to read it then, I did look at situations I had only imagined and compared them to how things had actually been,” said the writer.

“For example, I was trying to think about what it was actually like to be in an urban environment and being scared of other people around you because they were potentially infectious. I’d only really imagined that before, but now I had experience to draw on – thinking about how close I’d been when I walked past someone for example.

“It was strange that I managed to imagine some things in a way that I eventually experienced them.”

Quarantine follows two main characters, Lucas and Rebecca. One is locked inside a containment camp on a mountain in central Asia, the other is a virologist in New York.

BEST OF SCOTLAND -  Author Nick Holdstock: ‘I was as freaked out and worried as anyone else’

Nick said: “Lucas and everyone else in the camp are just waiting, trying to lead a normal life in an abnormal situation, waiting for a cure.

“Rebecca is part of  a team who found a vaccine, and who is living in New York where life has got back to normal for people. But she’s convinced the vaccine is only going to be good for so long and isn’t over it. 

“She has her own personal loss and trauma that she suffered during the disease. She’s not relaxed, and finds it very strange that everyone is carrying on. Like now, in a way.”

The experience of writing about a pandemic long before most of us had bothered to think about the reality of living through one didn’t make it any easier for Nick, who has lived in Edinburgh for 20 years. Even with their cyclical nature, the London-born writer was no better prepared than the rest of us.

He said: “It wasn’t something I was thinking was necessarily going to happen soon, but all the pointers were there in terms of how we live, globally. President Obama was warning about it in 2014.

“I’d like to say it protected me or made it easier, but I was just as freaked out and worried as anyone else. I don’t think fiction made it any safer for me.

“I’d seen lots of pandemic-related films and TV shows, and you might think you have a certain familiarity in terms of how scenarios will play out. But most of us in our lives have not had to think about something so big, so uncertain, so ongoing, so it didn’t really protect me.

“Watching all these films and TV shows gives you a mental script in terms of how you think it might play out, but when your own safety and the safety of people you love is jeopardised there isn’t much that can protect you from the very real dangers.”

Nick’s imagined virus brings about life-changing illness more commonly associated with old age in those who contract it.

He said: “When I started writing it in 2016, I wasn’t so much interested in writing about a pandemic as I was interested in writing about people who had been left behind after something was supposed to be over, yet they were still having to deal with the problem.

“The disease was a way of thinking about that sense of being marooned after everything was supposedly fine.”

In that sense, Nick agrees, Quarantine’s virus becomes a metaphor for everyday challenges life many of us face without daily briefings or mandatory lockdowns.

“It’s about how you recover from things, when do you get over things?” he said. “It’s about something that has a long tail emotionally, whatever it is – being bereaved, getting divorced. It’s that sense that you have to carry on and get on with your life, but yet with that feeling of something persisting even when it’s supposed to be over.”

The legal requirements around the wearing of face masks were relaxed earlier this year in Scotland, but the characters in Nick’s novel wear coverings for a different reason.

He said: “I hadn’t thought much about how important masks might become to all of us, and there’s a thing in the book where people keep wearing masks even when they’re supposedly safe. They use the mask as a way to remember people who died because they have the faces of the dead people on them. That’s not something we do now, but the idea of the mask becoming like a ritual to make people feel safe, that was kind of strange.”

There are also prescient references to China’s response to the emergence of the virus in early 2020.

“I have a background as a China expert, so it wasn’t a big stretch for me to imagine China being able to do something as drastic as control a huge border,” said Nick, who has written several books on human rights issues in the country. 

His previous fictional work, 2015’s novel The Casualties, explored humanity’s reaction to another global catastrophe. He said: “It was a story about a meteorite hitting the earth and ultimately making it a better place. So if a meteor comes in, then you’ll know who to contact.”

With Covid cases dropping, in the UK at least, and all restrictions lifted, how does Nick feel, having spent more time than the rest of us grappling with the world during a pandemic?

He said: “I don’t feel great about the current global stage of the pandemic, especially in the UK. I don’t feel it’s over, and don’t have a lot of trust in authority and their current tactics. I have the sense that they’re still rolling the dice in some way.

“There are a lot of things that I still haven’t done. 

“I still don’t go into busy place without a mask, and I haven’t been into a restaurant for a very long time.”
Yet for his characters in Quarantine, there is a “hard-earned hope.”

He said: “There’s a sense that there will always be baggage for what they’ve been through.”

And as for reality?

“There are some parallels between me and Rebecca in the book. I walk around seeing people in restaurants and I think: ‘I’m not ready for that yet.’

“But I think there can be positives, and I have hope – hope that we find an equilibrium and hope that we don’t have any new terrible strain,” he said.

“Maybe now we have a sense that things were more precarious than we realised – our relationships, how we work, what work we do. On one hand it feels like it has been going on forever, on the other hand it feels like it’s too soon to say.”
 

Quarantine is out now, published by 
Swift Press
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