“Before This is Over” (Little, Brown and Co.), by Amanda Hickie
Author Amanda Hickie was living in Canada when severe acute respiratory syndrome – SARS – hit Toronto in 2003. The panicked response to that outbreak, spread first by travelers returning from Asia and then among health care workers and patients at Toronto hospitals, fuels Hickie’s chilling new novel, “Before This is Over.”
As the novel opens, the deadly Manba virus is threatening to reach Sydney, Australia, where Hannah, a cancer survivor and mother of two, is preoccupied with disaster preparations that annoy her husband. An impending crisis is almost fun, an excuse to be selfish with a mild risk of looking a little foolish — until she actually must shut her family inside their home.
Within the confines of their house, Hannah feels like a hero and her family relaxes. The couple bickers, their kids get bored; breakfast has to be made, followed by lunch, and then there’s dinner. Hannah obsessively checks the rising death toll online, but that’s not as jarring as the sudden loss of electricity or the reappearance of a neighbor. Hickie packs mundane moments with a building sense of dread: Will Hannah’s miscalculation about the amount of toilet paper one person uses be a fatal mistake, or just another inconvenience in their little domestic adventure?
Reading “Before This is Over” in Miami, just a few months after the city became the epicenter of a Zika outbreak in the United States, Hannah’s reaction to a viral threat feels fresh and accurate. From her skepticism in the government’s containment efforts to her smug relief when her preparations appear to pay off, Hannah’s insistence that her children are more important than anyone else’s family raises haunting questions not only about how far you’d go to protect yourself in a crisis, but also about whether anyone will make better decisions the next time public health is threatened on a hemispheric scale.
Hannah never seems afraid until it occurs to her that her quiet suburban street has remained so quiet throughout the Manba plague because her neighbors had the same ideas, too. “Before This is Over” follows the same suspenseful lines as the post-apocalyptic classic “On the Beach,” which follows the day-to-day experiences of a group of Australians awaiting the fallout from nuclear war — but Hickie finds more to fear in disasters that have already happened than in any abstract threat.