In the opening chapters of the novel Fourteen Days, as Covid-19 rages outside, a group of New Yorkers gather on the roof of their apartment building in Manhattan. They’re hesitant, maintaining a safe distance and scoping one another out from afar.
One character, called the Lady with the Rings, tells the others that the pandemic will be like 9/11. “Nobody will talk about it,” she says.
Another, known as The Therapist, answers that no one talks about 9/11 because the attack gave New Yorkers post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. “I still have 9/11 patients working through PTSD. Twenty years later,” she says.
If discussing trauma has the power to ease it, then Fourteen Days, a meditation on universal themes such as love, death and grief, presents itself as something of a balm for the pain inflicted by the pandemic. “Let’s talk about it,” the book, published earlier this month, seems to say. Quietly, carefully, it extends a hand, offering the chance for rumination over the collective and individual pains the world laboured through from February 2020 onward.
The concept is simple: Different tenants in the building take turns telling stories. The twist? The novel is a collective work, and each story is written by one of 36 American and Canadian authors, including Erica Jong (famous for her 1973 book, Fear of Flying), Celeste Ng (the acclaimed author of Little Fires Everywhere) and Tommy Orange (author of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize finalist There There).
The writers come from different backgrounds and work in different genres, including poetry, romance and children’s fiction. An index at the end reveals who wrote what. Margaret Atwood, the legendary mind behind bestsellers including The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake, is one of the book’s editors, alongside Douglas Preston, a former president of the Authors Guild, who conceived the idea.
The stories move swiftly through time and span the depth and breadth of the North American continent, sometimes even venturing abroad. A young Black girl growing up in Texas in the 1960s discovers a jarring secret about her dad’s best friend; a teenager in Massachusetts learns about the terrors of the Vietnam war after becoming a newspaper delivery boy; and a middle-aged Cuban woman from Miami accepts some truths about herself while on a “bro trip” with her husband, his friends and their wives.
Some of the stories are quirky. In one, two pet rabbits cannot stop fighting until their owners, on the advice of an animal therapist, put them in a box in a car and drive around for an hour or so, turning the box over periodically. Afterward, the rabbits miraculously get along. The theory? “The rabbits would bond over this shared experience of trauma,” explains the storyteller.
Fourteen Days presents itself as something of a balm for the pain inflicted by the pandemic.
Other stories toy with magical realism. Maine, a doctor, talks about a nun she worked with at a Catholic hospital, who had a preternatural ability to sense when death was coming. Working in a coronavirus ward, the doctor wishes she had the nun with her to tell her “which lives I should fight to save, and which lives are already lost.”
In less deft hands, the variety of voices could become a painful cacophony. But with the editing of Atwood and Preston, the transitions are smooth and the individuality of each voice brings depth to the work without causing distraction. A key character – the newly hired caretaker of the building – anchors the reader. Every evening, she secretly records the stories on her phone and later transcribes them out of boredom for a reason not revealed until the ending.
Though the setting is painful, with sirens in the street signalling one death after another, the tone of the book is steady. None of the stories are deeply shocking or upsetting. Instead, they slowly weave together – cosy and comforting. It is as if the reader, too, is on that roof, led by the storytellers through the shared work of processing grief.