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A woman sitting on the edge of a bed in a darkened room looking out of the window.

The Details: could a ‘quiet COVID book’ win the 2024 International Booker prize?

This year’s International Booker prize shortlist is neatly varied, offering generational sagas, magical realism, and personal and political narratives that are “implicitly optimistic” , exploring the current realities of racism and oppression, global violence and ecological disaster.

Among the shortlisted nominees, there is one very small, very quiet, COVID book from Sweden, inspired by the coronavirus pandemic.

Despite reports of the end of the first wave of COVID literature in 2023, and the International Booker 2024 Prize longlist signalling another boom in Latin American fiction, COVID books began appearing on 2024 reading lists once more. And when the International Booker went on to shortlist a COVID novella called The Details on April 9, it confirmed a second wave of pandemic literature had arrived.

The opening of the novella, which hooks you in no less than ten pages, begins with a woman in bed, afflicted by a fever which renews her interest in a half-forgotten book – The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster – that was gifted to her by a lover after contracting malaria in the Serengeti in 1996.

The Swedish author, Ia Genberg, who won both the August Prize and Aftonbladet literary prize in 2022 for this quick read, says she began writing it just as the woman in the novel does: “in a COVID fever in April 2020”. The author went to her bookshelf and picked up a random book that fell into her hands, revealing a handwritten inscription from someone who had gifted her the book 25 years earlier.

Finding the words

Genberg and translator Kira Joseffson’s magical relationship on the page stirs your soul with first-person, vividly realised gestures and a plotlessness which baffles and stuns. Four chapters emerge as intimate portraits of Johanna, Niki, Alejandro, Birgitte – lovers, roommates and a mother who have each stitched together the fibres of the unnamed narrator’s life.

Impressively, Joseffson’s touch is sure and natural. A single sentence offers fresh coinages on love, loss, regret and friendship. Genberg and Joseffson are in possession of the incomparable ability to give name to everything you’ve ever felt but didn’t realise or had been unable to find the right words for, to excavate forgotten memory.

Paragraphs work with the mutations of a vocabulary on being ill. In a nightclub scene from the millennium, we can trace the language of the virus as the narrator realises everyone is “standing close together, squeezed by a crowd … rubbing shoulders while sipping from their own personal bottle”. Meanwhile the songs of the band of the narrator’s ex’s “spread” on the radio.

Birgitte’s childhood trauma is described as an “unfathomable event” that is removed “to the far back where it is quarantined from the rest of the world, out of reach for the rest of her life … a shadow that respired in the background of her life every day”.

COVID is a quiet power that pulses through the book as the narrator feverishly enters each chapter-memory, but the actual word remains nowhere to be seen. It belongs to a new phenomenon I am calling “quiet COVID books” – where the writer has sufficiently distanced their books from the unprecedented crisis.

Is this the secret to successfully attracting readers while addressing the pandemic? Leaving reasonable doubt for readers to consider that the virus might be some vague, undiagnosed illness?

Fear of the C-word

Books that are quietly about the pandemic and don’t mention COVID are becoming a popular and neat way for writers to address the crisis in literature, without scaring off avoidant readers who lament the COVID novel as jarring reading.

Michael Cunningham’s Day (2024) doesn’t mention the pandemic, while writers like Rachel Khong, author of Real Americans (2024), allude to it. Khong has inserted a subtle but significant presence of the pandemic into her narrative.

Australian novelist Kate Morton said that, in February 2020, she had been writing “a totally different book” to her novel Homecoming (2023). Despite its origin being influenced by lockdown, Morton consciously ends her book in pre-pandemic 2018, perhaps to avoid getting into what has been deemed “boring apocalypse” territory.

Even Amazon’s recent major news it was adapting 56 days – the murderously twisty Irish COVID crime fiction novel by Catherine Ryan Howard – revealed that TV producers have removed the pandemic backdrop from the hotly anticipated psychological thriller.

Genberg has judged the reception and landscape of coronavirus literature perfectly, taking a subtle approach to the pandemic moment and leading it in a new direction, writing it in a way that we haven’t seen done before.


Read more: International Booker prize 2024: six expert reviews of the shortlisted books


A perfectly written novel

In the interplay between the small details and looking for everything in the gaze of others and the constancy of ordinary life, Genberg leads us to her characters’ bookcases where the books they have curated, cherished and valued are portals to the past and windows to the soul.

A cover of a book called The Details by Ia Genberg showing parts of two women's faces.
Hachette

While the author confirms the beginnings of the book are semi-autobiographical, there are no Alejandros or Johannas walking around in the world. The layers of consummate feelings within this book – about being a daughter and a friend, having passionate and deep relationships, and the experience of losing people – are all very real. This is what makes book’s soft, teary conclusion in the “Birgitte” chapter the part that will stay in your bones forever.

Birgitte’s “lifelong undertaking to make her instability seem normal is her life’s great struggle”. In captivating, meandering prose which pays perfectly nuanced attention to the event that defines her life, there is an intriguing examination on the transmission of trauma amid the heartbreaking revelation of who Birgitte – the person the narrator “can’t escape” – is.

I reread this and cried both times. Translator Kira Joseffson admits to being in tears while translating the final chapter, unable to remain “professionally distant” – testament to the power of Genberg’s astonishing writing.

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