Book of the week: The Premonition by Michael Lewis
Lewis once again turns a complex subject into ‘a fluid intellectual thriller’
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In October 2019, health security experts published the Global Health Security Index, a list of countries best placed to deal with a pandemic. The US was number one. So why have more than 600,000 of its citizens died from Covid-19? The answer, said Steven Poole in The Daily Telegraph, is that although the US had a plan, no one dared use it until it was too late.
This is the tragedy explored by Michael Lewis, author of Liar’s Poker and The Big Short, who once again turns a complex subject into “a fluid intellectual thriller”. Packed with fascinating facts and personal angles, The Premonition follows a gang of maverick scientists who designed a detailed response to an imagined outbreak – only to find it ignored at the critical moment.Trump’s “cabal of know-nothing cronies” were partly to blame, but Lewis reserves his real fury for the obtuse scientific bureaucrats who were perpetually demanding more evidence.
It was George W. Bush who decided that the US needed a pandemic plan, said Christina Patterson in The Sunday Times. After reading a book on Spanish flu, he funded a team which came up with a revolutionary approach involving social distancing and school closures. But, fatally, those scientists had been dispersed by the time Covid-19 arrived. This “gripping” book details the inertia and wilful blindness of the government, and brings those involved vividly to life. The descriptions are “punchy”, the dialogue is snappy: “Lewis is a master of his form.”
What makes the book so refreshing is that it ignores the obvious Covid narrative, said Frieda Klotz in The Irish Independent. Instead of starting in Wuhan, it burrows back into the lives of important players in the US response.
First up is 13-year-old Laura Glass, who asked her scientist father to help with her school project on the Black Death by creating a computer programme to plot a disease’s path through society; this would become key to the lockdown strategy the government finally embraced.
As in his previous books, Lewis’s “propulsive” narrative pits a handful of unheralded individuals against a monolithic system, said Mark O’Connell in The Guardian. The main antagonist here is the federal Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, damningly portrayed as an organisation in which institutional caution amounts to a form of recklessness.
It’s a gripping book with a powerful message – even if it does sometimes read less “like a work of narrative journalism than an exceptionally vivid script treatment” for the inevitable movie adaptation.
Allen Lane 320pp £25; The Week Bookshop £19.99
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