Re-reading this slim YA novel was an uncanny experience, as it seems quite prescient. It was first published in 1989 by Methuen with the title Plague 99, apparently set in the year 1999. For the reissued Mammoth edition in 2001, it was just Plague.
The story is focused on two characters. Fran has just been on a sixth-formers camp, away from the benefits of civilisation, returning to find the roads empty and London under quarantine. Shahid is stuck in a block of flats, watching re-runs of old films, waiting for his father to die of a horrifying illness. Fran and Shahid, along with another teenager, Harriet, eventually find each other and set out to navigate this dramatically altered world.
It’s an edgy, unsettling read, engaging with British society’s preoccupations of the time: the fear of nuclear war, criticism of the Thatcher government, race riots, urban decay. The events in the book are realistically portrayed, with cities under lockdown, the hospitals unable to cope, people barricading themselves at home in front of the TV, surrounded by stockpiled tins. It’s very much a worst case scenario of what could have happened in the UK (and could still happen). The only detail I thought was too far-out, was the government putting surgical masks through everyone’s doors, as if there were endless supplies.
I liked the teenage characters, who seemed mature and maybe a bit too nice (that must be why I liked them!), although they perhaps spoke a little more formally than real teenagers would. For a YA novel written over thirty years ago, it hasn’t dated too badly and is still a good read. Two sequels were published, but I was never interested in reading them.