This article was written for the Mirthy website but I have permission to reproduce it here.
A positive aspect of lockdown has been the increased time available for reading. I’ve got through a wide range of novels but, until recently, avoided anything that focused on pandemics or lockdown. For me, fiction is a means of escaping ordinary life and day-to-day problems. However, this self-imposed rule was broken when Lockdown by Peter May was chosen as the monthly read by my book group and I spotted publicity for Just the Two of Us by Jo Wilde. These two very different books transported me out of my lockdown situation because the challenges facing the characters were so very different to my own.
Lockdown by Peter May
Lockdown takes place over 24 hours in a London locked down by a bird flu, H5N1, pandemic. This flu has a mortality rate of more than sixty percent and London is at the epicentre. This fictional lockdown is far more rigorously imposed than our own COVID regulations. There is a night-time curfew, checkpoints, soldiers carrying guns and special clearance needed to drive in certain areas. Against this backdrop, a bag of bones is discovered, the bones of a murdered child. D.I. Jack MacNeil is put on the case but MacNeil is working his last shift before leaving the Metropolitan Police. The case and the injustices this child went through consume the detective and the race is on to solve the murder before he leaves the force.
Before writing the novel, May already had an interest in pandemics following his research into the Spanish Flu for an earlier book, Snakehead. Then, in 2005, he started investigating the possibility of a bird flu pandemic and how it might spread and engulf the population. Armed with the science and a crime, May wrote Lockdown in only six weeks but it failed to find a publisher. Editors thought May’s portrayal of London under lockdown was unrealistic and could never happen. Fast forward to 2020. May dusted off his old manuscript, which had suddenly become very topical, and the book was published.
This is a fast-moving thriller which hooks the reader on page one and keeps him enthralled until the end. Like most fictional detectives, MacNeil has personal problems that get worse as the story races along. He breaks the rules, performs heroic deeds and goes far beyond the call of duty, given that this is his last shift with the force. The final sentence of the book is poignant – so don’t be tempted to read the last page first (yes, there are people who do that!)
Just the Two of Us by Jo Wilde
Just the Two of Us takes place in the first few weeks of the March 2020 UK lockdown. Julie and Michael have been married for thirty-four years. They sleep in separate bedrooms, they live separate lives and their children have left home. The disintegration in their relationship is so bad that Julie has consulted a solicitor and has the divorce papers ready to hand to Michael. Then Boris Johnson announces the national lockdown. Julie and Michael can’t escape one another. It doesn’t seem the right time to rock the boat and Julie is left in limbo. Unable to leave the house and forced to meet eyes across the dinner table every night, things begin to change but is it possible for them to rekindle their relationship or do they have to find another way forward?
Jo Wilde is an established author, writing historical novels under the name Joanna Courtney and contemporary fiction as Anna Stuart. Unusually, Jo’s publisher came up with the idea for Just the Two of Us and presented Jo with outlines of the characters and the main plot points. Jo liked the idea and with lockdown kicking in hard was happy to devote herself to the writing. That actual writing took only four weeks followed by a further two weeks of editorial input. Usually it then takes eighteen months before a book appears on the shelves but, because of the topical nature, the whole process was accelerated and Just the Two of Us came out in July 2020.
When asked about the writing, Jo said, “It was pretty hectic but gave me the perfect excuse to make my teenage kids (two of whom had just had GCSEs and A-levels cancelled and one of whom had sadly had to come home from a ski season working in Canada, so all were at loose ends) do all the housework and cleaning. I holed myself up in my office and wrote and I really enjoyed it!”
This is an easy-to-read story about relationships, families and empty nests. It captures perfectly how things can disintegrate when there is a lack of communication between two people and no time in hectic lives to talk things through. The story is set in the early part of the first lockdown but uses a lot of flashbacks to earlier points in Julie and Michael’s marriage. The reader slowly pieces together how the relationship disintegrated, why Julie is carrying secret guilt over her mother’s death and how Michael feels about working away. But, unlike some books, there is never any confusion over what is current and what is flashback.
As a woman of a certain age, I could empathise with many of Julie’s feelings.
Although initially wary, I enjoyed both Lockdown and Just the Two of Us. I was worried that I might find them too much of a mirror to the lockdown world we find ourselves in, and thus depressing. But because the characters’ situations were fundamentally different to my own, I was still able to escape into the fiction without being constantly reminded of face masks, hand sanitiser and the two metre rule!