Click HERE to read Michael O’Sullivan’s reflection on writing Lockdown Lovers, written exclusively for Cha, and an excerpt from the novel.
Michael O’Sullivan, Lockdown Lovers, Penguin Random House SEA, 2021. 240 pgs.
In the early weeks of the pandemic, I latched on to any film or book that would shed light on what we were going through. These were all fictional, like Contagion, Outbreak, Train to Busan, and Snowpiercer. Some of these films seemed more realistic than others, but the message was the same. A deadly virus had changed our way of life. Books like Ying Ma’s Severance and Laurie Halse Anderson’s Fever 1793 also provided a counterintuitive calming effect. I had tried Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven some years earlier and couldn’t wrap my imagination around the post-pandemic sections of the book. Now, I have a better understanding and should revisit that novel. Years from now, perhaps someone will study the psychology of living through a pandemic and the various coping mechanisms we turn to. I’m also certain that years from now, we will have a wide selection of novels and films set during our pandemic, one we will continue to live through until the world is vaccinated.
Michael O’Sullivan may be the first to write a pandemic novel before we know just how it will end. Lockdown Lovers came out earlier this year and takes place in Hong Kong mainly during the beginning of the pandemic. As I started his book, I found it both eerie and surreal to read about these events that we now know all too well.
One of O’Sullivan’s three narrators is John, who is an Irish professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He spends the early days of the pandemic in a 24-hour McDonald’s in Sai Kung while his wife Sue is home with their sickly baby son, Sam. John takes advantage of the outlet’s tolerant attitude to lingering members of the public to write his musings about the way life is changing before his eyes. Most of the story consists of these ruminations, and they are interesting because we’ve all had them. One of John’s earlier observations shows the atmosphere of Hong Kong in those days:
All public facilities are closed, all community halls, all sportsgrounds, all major bank branches. All flights out of Hong Kong are suspended. The malls stay open, but the shelves are empty. No bleach, no toilet rolls, no handwash, no sanitary towels, no rice, no alcohol wipes, no Dettol. The list grows every day. Soon we won’t function as we ought. A viral photo showed a middle-aged man with a trolley full of sanitary towels. We walk the streets aimless and faceless. It’s a vision of a dystopian future realized.—Michael O’Sullivan’s Lockdown Lovers
The most startling part of this excerpt is that we are still living it, even if supplies are better stocked in the shops.
John winds up contracting the virus and being relocated to a quarantine centre on Lamma, where he reconnects with a young activist on the district council he had met previously. He and Phoebe steal away for a romantic interlude when the guards are not watching. It had been so long since either of them had physically touched someone else, thanks to the distancing restrictions and fears of the pandemic.
He is then released from quarantine, while Phoebe stays because her symptoms are prolonged. He insists on flying back to Ireland to visit his ageing parents. He is worried about them now that the virus has become a global pandemic. At the same time, John knows he should stay back with Sue and Sam, yet still goes ahead with his trip to Ireland. Sue’s family is in Hong Kong and she has a support system in the city, but he can’t help but worry about his parents half a world away. When he arrives in Cork, his hometown, he tells his friends that he’s back. Their reaction is almost comical because we have all probably been in this place sometime during the last year and a half.
Friends here were furious when I told them I was coming back. “Stay away!” they said. “Stay away, for the love our country. Jesus!” These were the words of my best friends. The “our country” seemed to exclude me. I didn’t feel like it invited me in. The “Jesus” seemed almost shocking for a couple that I knew were so anti-religious. I knew it was meant as a kind of gasp of shock at the end of their plea, a crowning moment of appeal.—Michael O’Sullivan’s Lockdown Lovers
O’Sullivan captures these awkward moments brilliantly. As a reader, it felt good to laugh about these shared experiences and to know that it’s all right and even normal to be anti-social these days.
The Cork setting may seem convenient only because it’s O’Sullivan’s own home town, but, as it turns out, he adds a fascinating Hong Kong connection to this part of the story. For anyone who has ever spent time in Wan Chai or Causeway Bay, it’s almost impossible to miss Hennessy Road. This main thoroughfare is named after John Pope Hennessy, governor of Hong Kong from 1877 to 1883. Hennessy, like O’Sullivan, was from Cork and was one of the more progressive governors of his time. He reversed restrictions and began to allow Chinese to own land and buildings in Central and to become British subjects.
In the novel, present-day John remembers spending time in the United College Library Archives at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, looking through Hennessy’s letters from Hong Kong. In some of these letters, Hennessy recalled the years of the Great Famine in Ireland. I had to chuckle when I came across this part because thirty years ago I, too, spent my lunch hours in the same spot, pouring through back issues of the Far Eastern Economic Review to see if Jiang Qing and Pol Pot were still alive. (They were; the many rumours were incorrect at that point.)
In Cork, John thinks of Phoebe and Sue and Sam during his self-quarantine. And while John is away, Phoebe ponders the different reactions to the virus around the world. There are protests in Italy. The UK dared to suggest that mitigation measures could be in place for six months. Six months! That seems farcical now, but I’m sure we can all remember when half a year was deemed impossible and unnecessary. Today we long for a time when everything will be back to normal just six months from now. Phoebe also thinks about Hong Kong and lockdowns and wonders if there was ever a time when most Hong Kong people weren’t on a type of lockdown. Considering the tiny apartments packed with bunk beds in densely packed neighbourhoods, what kind of mobility was there before the pandemic?
The other characters in the story do not play as prominent a role as John and Phoebe, but still add to the atmosphere of the pandemic. Kwok-ying is a government health worker who also ends up in the Lamma quarantine centre and who mentions in passing a politician named Carnie Lim in Hong Kong and a leader named Shi in China. There is also an appearance by a pangolin, which at first could seem a bit incongruous, but it works and is important in showing how the virus might have started and our role as humans in disrupting the environment.
The simple pangolin had no idea what it was starting. With thousands of its brothers and sisters being slaughtered, mutilated, and tortured every day in this corner of the Southern Hubei forests, it found itself distressed. It didn’t have the same appetite, one might say. It was turned right off its food having to wade through the bloodied scales and entrails of its brothers and sisters every morning.—Michael O’Sullivan’s Lockdown Lovers
Under these circumstances, it makes sense that it would produce a virus to protect itself and its species.
John returns to Hong Kong and the virus is nowhere near over. But it’s Phoebe’s words towards the end that give pause. What will our post-virus lives look like and will we ever get back to “normal”? Time will tell, but for Phoebe, who writes from the future in 2022, maybe the answer is already clear:
The virus years had infected us in other ways. We grew to see crisis as the norm. Emotionally we were pitched so high for so long, we could never come back down. It was as if I suddenly saw through everything. I couldn’t attach myself to anything, couldn’t apply myself to anything.—Michael O’Sullivan’s Lockdown Lovers
How to cite: Blumberg-Kason, Susan. “Before We Know How It Will End: A Review of Michael O’Sullivan’s Lockdown Lovers.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 14 Jun. 2021, chajournal.blog/2021/06/14/review-lockdown-lovers/.
Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair With China Gone Wrong. Her writing has also appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books‘ China Blog, Asian Jewish Life, and several Hong Kong anthologies. She received an MPhil in Government and Public Administration from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Blumberg-Kason now lives in Chicago and spends her free time volunteering with senior citizens in Chinatown. (Photo credit: Annette Patko)