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Fourteen Days co-edited by Margaret Atwood review – a pandemic tale | Fiction

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‘In the dark times / Will there also be singing?” muses Brecht in the Svendborg Poems. “Yes, there will also be singing / About the dark times.” The impulse for lamentation in a crisis is instinctive and, perhaps, socially useful. But how we voice a response to catastrophe can be contentious, not least with the recent Covid pandemic. And while it may be too early to judge the overall effect of the crisis on the written word, we seem to have come out of it with more of a feeling of discord than harmony, and a sense that the plague and its quarantine accelerated an already existing divisiveness and cultural dissonance.

So in many ways the publication of Fourteen Days could not have been more timely. Commissioned by the US Authors Guild Foundation, with proceeds going to support its charitable work, this is a collaborative novel set in New York at the start of lockdown, offering a collective narrative of that time and produced by 36 literary heavyweights from the US and Canada. Edited by Margaret Atwood and Douglas Preston, there’s work here from an impressive list of writers, including Emma Donoghue, Ishmael Reed, Dave Eggers and Celeste Ng. The book is pitched as an “ode to the power of storytelling and human connection”, and the setting is an apartment building in Manhattan, where residents gather on the rooftop at twilight; socially distanced interactions develop as they begin telling tales. A shared sense of grief and isolation emerges and, as New York becomes the epicentre of the pandemic, the stories become “a reminder of what we’re losing, keeping people away from their loved ones as they die”.

An introduction explains that each character has been created by a different writer, and a wide-ranging cast reflects the diversity of the authors. The rooftop becomes a very crowded stage and each day a wonderful variety of testimonies is recounted. There are ghost stories, angels appearing in Mexico, a nun in a Catholic hospital who can predict when patients are about to die, war stories, a tale of gay adoption, an account of how Shakespeare survived the plague that devastated London in the 1590s. Even an anecdote about a pet rabbit becomes a parable about how shared trauma can act as a bond. The standout story for me is set in Texas in the 1970s, about a Black female country and western musician who falls in love with a white male star, “kind of a cross between Kristofferson and Glen Campbell with a lot more grit”. Harsh realities of time and place are captured with a real musicality, in a sad and beautiful ballad of doomed love. It’s revealed at the back of the book to have been written by Alice Randall.

The central narrator of the novel is the building’s caretaker, Yessie, a second-generation Romanian-American lesbian whose prime motivation is to reach her father, who has Alzheimer’s and is trapped in a nursing home in another part of the city. In the meantime she struggles to keep a thread running through the novel, diligently recording each evening gathering for us, referring to convenient notes left by the former caretaker that give useful character breakdowns and catchy nicknames for the residents. There’s an awful lot of setup here, which hinders the sense of a coherent novel. Instead, a rather contrived frame story to the individual narratives is established, like Boccaccio’s Decameron, itself set during the Black Death pandemic of 14th-century Europe. It’s an obvious inspiration, though it doesn’t get a mention until the 12th day.

“Listening to all of you up here, hiding from the plague, telling stories,” declares the Poet, a struggling Black writer and academic. “How could this whole thing not remind us of the Decameron?” His own tale becomes something of a recursive satire, recounting a seminar in which diverse arts practitioners hold “classical readings about the plague now that it has been declared a national emergency”. Representatives of various minorities at the seminar soon condemn Boccaccio as being homophobic, transphobic, ableist, elitist, antisemitic and racist. Here, as elsewhere, there is much debate about who is truly given a voice, where “one person’s censorship is another person’s didacticism”. And despite, or maybe because of, the discursive nature of the novel, a strong theme does emerge from the heart of it: the struggle for identity.

The appearance of ghosts also becomes a recurring trope, providing a rather hokey denouement, but it’s the spectre of the culture wars that truly haunts the book. Fourteen Days chronicles how Covid-19 exacerbated a fever of competing rights and fierce arguments over free speech and silencing. And it inadvertently pinpoints the effect that lockdown had on literature: how it has become increasingly solipsistic and autofictional, with lived experience valued over creative storytelling. The power of much of the writing here is undeniable, as is the sense of personal testimony. The fact that it doesn’t cohere as a novel is perhaps the point, giving us a more accurate reflection of the fractured world we came back to. The imagination remained socially distanced, leaving us with a strange sense of collective isolation.

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Fourteen Days: A Collaborative Novel, edited by Margaret Atwood and Douglas Preston, is published by Chatto & Windus, £20. To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.


‘In the dark times / Will there also be singing?” muses Brecht in the Svendborg Poems. “Yes, there will also be singing / About the dark times.” The impulse for lamentation in a crisis is instinctive and, perhaps, socially useful. But how we voice a response to catastrophe can be contentious, not least with the recent Covid pandemic. And while it may be too early to judge the overall effect of the crisis on the written word, we seem to have come out of it with more of a feeling of discord than harmony, and a sense that the plague and its quarantine accelerated an already existing divisiveness and cultural dissonance.

So in many ways the publication of Fourteen Days could not have been more timely. Commissioned by the US Authors Guild Foundation, with proceeds going to support its charitable work, this is a collaborative novel set in New York at the start of lockdown, offering a collective narrative of that time and produced by 36 literary heavyweights from the US and Canada. Edited by Margaret Atwood and Douglas Preston, there’s work here from an impressive list of writers, including Emma Donoghue, Ishmael Reed, Dave Eggers and Celeste Ng. The book is pitched as an “ode to the power of storytelling and human connection”, and the setting is an apartment building in Manhattan, where residents gather on the rooftop at twilight; socially distanced interactions develop as they begin telling tales. A shared sense of grief and isolation emerges and, as New York becomes the epicentre of the pandemic, the stories become “a reminder of what we’re losing, keeping people away from their loved ones as they die”.

An introduction explains that each character has been created by a different writer, and a wide-ranging cast reflects the diversity of the authors. The rooftop becomes a very crowded stage and each day a wonderful variety of testimonies is recounted. There are ghost stories, angels appearing in Mexico, a nun in a Catholic hospital who can predict when patients are about to die, war stories, a tale of gay adoption, an account of how Shakespeare survived the plague that devastated London in the 1590s. Even an anecdote about a pet rabbit becomes a parable about how shared trauma can act as a bond. The standout story for me is set in Texas in the 1970s, about a Black female country and western musician who falls in love with a white male star, “kind of a cross between Kristofferson and Glen Campbell with a lot more grit”. Harsh realities of time and place are captured with a real musicality, in a sad and beautiful ballad of doomed love. It’s revealed at the back of the book to have been written by Alice Randall.

The central narrator of the novel is the building’s caretaker, Yessie, a second-generation Romanian-American lesbian whose prime motivation is to reach her father, who has Alzheimer’s and is trapped in a nursing home in another part of the city. In the meantime she struggles to keep a thread running through the novel, diligently recording each evening gathering for us, referring to convenient notes left by the former caretaker that give useful character breakdowns and catchy nicknames for the residents. There’s an awful lot of setup here, which hinders the sense of a coherent novel. Instead, a rather contrived frame story to the individual narratives is established, like Boccaccio’s Decameron, itself set during the Black Death pandemic of 14th-century Europe. It’s an obvious inspiration, though it doesn’t get a mention until the 12th day.

“Listening to all of you up here, hiding from the plague, telling stories,” declares the Poet, a struggling Black writer and academic. “How could this whole thing not remind us of the Decameron?” His own tale becomes something of a recursive satire, recounting a seminar in which diverse arts practitioners hold “classical readings about the plague now that it has been declared a national emergency”. Representatives of various minorities at the seminar soon condemn Boccaccio as being homophobic, transphobic, ableist, elitist, antisemitic and racist. Here, as elsewhere, there is much debate about who is truly given a voice, where “one person’s censorship is another person’s didacticism”. And despite, or maybe because of, the discursive nature of the novel, a strong theme does emerge from the heart of it: the struggle for identity.

The appearance of ghosts also becomes a recurring trope, providing a rather hokey denouement, but it’s the spectre of the culture wars that truly haunts the book. Fourteen Days chronicles how Covid-19 exacerbated a fever of competing rights and fierce arguments over free speech and silencing. And it inadvertently pinpoints the effect that lockdown had on literature: how it has become increasingly solipsistic and autofictional, with lived experience valued over creative storytelling. The power of much of the writing here is undeniable, as is the sense of personal testimony. The fact that it doesn’t cohere as a novel is perhaps the point, giving us a more accurate reflection of the fractured world we came back to. The imagination remained socially distanced, leaving us with a strange sense of collective isolation.

skip past newsletter promotion

Fourteen Days: A Collaborative Novel, edited by Margaret Atwood and Douglas Preston, is published by Chatto & Windus, £20. To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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