Although Lewis does justice to the complexity of the scientific and institutional problems he’s examining, he rarely gets bogged down in their density. He is at least as interested in characterisation as he is in, say, explaining the science of stuff like viral genetic sequencing. The wager here is that the investment in the former pays off by getting the reader through a fair amount of the latter. And so he devotes a large proportion of what is a relatively short book to establishing his characters’ back stories. We first encounter Charity Dean, for instance, dealing more or less single-handedly with a TB outbreak in her Santa Barbara jurisdiction, trying to get a useless coroner’s office to perform an autopsy on a TB-riddled corpse. (By the time I got to her standing in the parking lot of a morgue, rolling up her sleeves and opening the corpse’s ribs with a pair of garden shears as a bunch of terrified men in Hazmat suits look on, I had narrowed down my casting preference to either Kristen Bell or Reece Witherspoon.)
More than half a million and still counting. The Premonition shows that those deaths were caused by inertia, wilful blindness and a desire to keep heads down. It also shows that some humans always buck the trend. This is a book about some brave, curious people who tried hard to swim against the tide. As always in a Lewis book they are brought vividly alive. The descriptions are punchy, the dialogue snappy. Lewis is a master of his form. He’s an expert, in fact. It’s just a shame that the voices of the experts in his book were ignored until it was too late.
Lewis’s tale is instead perhaps best thought of as being to the pandemic what Band of Brothers is to the Second World War.
The real story was about the gruelling attrition of the Russian front, the geography of the English Channel, and the finale — the Second World War version of the vaccine — of the atomic bomb. Yet a much more personal tale of plucky Americans fighting, failing and occasionally winning on the front line is easier to understand, and contains its own truths.