With all but essential workers on lockdown, and our social lives on hold, the time seems ripe for a reading revolution. But this is no holiday; anxiety will skew what and how we read. Some will want to escape to another world where there’s no fear of contagion; others will seek out stories that echo our turbulent times. Others will find solace in nature, in extending our outdoor time through words on the page. Whatever your current inclinations, I hope I have something to tempt you, from my reading of around 140 novels a year. Most of these are reviewed on my blog: clicking on the title will take you there. And if none of these take your fancy, let me know through the comments and I’ll try to suggest something more to your taste.
Novels about confinement and pandemics
Fiction can help us process difficult experiences by engaging with stories which parallel our own. We can vicariously explore our emotions through discovering how the characters cope. We do this effortlessly, unconsciously, and – unlike our own predicament – if it gets too hairy, we can simply close the book.
It’s no surprise that sales have soared recently of Albert Camus’ 1947 novel The Plague (La Peste). More surprising, perhaps, is that at the end of last year I read two novels about the Black Death: did these authors know something the rest of us didn’t?
If you fear going stir crazy to staring at four walls, spare a thought for Oisín Fagan’s characters in Nobber, a darkly entertaining tale of pestilence, madness and land seizure. Debarred from leaving their windowless hovels, the townsfolk languish in darkness and stifling summer heat, along with their moribund relatives and putrefying dead.
A little more sober, perhaps, To Calais in Ordinary Time by James Meek is an impressive, if challenging, linguistic achievement, exploring power, belief, gender, love and misogyny set in cataclysmic times. Revisiting my review a few months on, I’m heartened by the thread of common humanity, as three English cultures, so separate they don’t even speak the same language, find a degree of mutual respect.
Not about sickness, but my go-to novel about confinement, The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader provides a fascinating insight into life in a mediaeval English village, with its feudal system on one hand and the power of the church on the other. Yet the novel seems highly contemporary in its themes of religiosity, obsession and interdependency.
While not physically locked in, the central character in Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini, translated from the Italian by J Ockenden, is willingly estranged from society. It’s a a beautifully compassionate story of an old man gradually becoming estranged from himself. Whether due to dementia, psychosis or social isolation, the author perfectly encapsulates how his attempts to safeguard his shreds of sanity pitch him deeper into the muddled maelstrom of his mind.
Locked up, not alone, or even with family, but with fifty-seven other international hostages in an unnamed South American country, the characters in Ann Patchett’s multi-award-winning Bel Canto find a sense of community amid the fear and boredom. (No review for this as I read it before I started blogging but I urge you to read it if you haven’t already.)
For some who work in offices, lockdown might feel like freedom in contrast. That’s if we can believe the atmosphere evoked in The Room by Jonas Karlsson, translated from the Swedish by Neil Smith, a marvellous Kafkaesque fable about office politics, diversity and differing versions of reality.
Novels to escape into
Fiction can be a retreat from painful reality by transporting us to worlds different to our own. While we might not have an actual time machine, we can forget our woes when our minds travel to some hypothetical future or back into the past.
Classics can be comforting at such times, especially if we’ve read them before. But if you’re an Austen fan bemoaning the fact that she’ll never launch another bestseller, you might enjoy Janice Hadlow’s The Other Bennet Sister. It begins as a retelling of Pride and Prejudice from a neglected point of view, rehabilitating not only dour Mary but scheming Charlotte Lucas, oleaginous Mr Collins and shadowy Aunt Gardiner. It then moves into its own as Mary is herself transformed into a convincing Austen heroine, both endearing to the reader and suitably flawed.
If Regency England still seems too recent, Lux by Elizabeth Cook takes us right back to New Testament times with – among other themes – a feminist reimagining of the story of Bathsheba, supposed seductress of the psalm-writer, King David.
Fast forward to the twentieth century for Lissa Evans’ Old Baggage. Light as a soufflé, and with touches of humour, it’s a moving tribute to the campaign for women’s suffrage with a credible portrait of a heroic woman whose loyalty to the wrong person ends up hurting herself and those who love her best.
For a zany read with laugh-out-loud humour, spend a few pleasant hours with Shona McMonagle, the feisty time-travelling heroine of Olga Wojitas’ debut, Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar, when she’s invited by the 200-year-old founder of her alma mater to serve as a goodwill ambassador.
I couldn’t find many futuristic novels that aren’t also dystopian, which might not be the best form of escape, but Jaroslav Kalfar’s debut is a marvellously quirky exception. While some novels suffer from the weight of too many stories, Spaceman of Bohemia manages to be much bigger than the sum of its many parts: sci-fi adventure; love story; sociopolitical history of the Czech Republic and homage to Prague; psychodrama of how the actions of one generation shape the next; a meditation on identity, adaption to loss, and what makes us human.
The nature cure
There’s some evidence that engaging with nature can be therapeutic, but that’s small consolation for anyone with no green space accessible at a short distance from home. Fortunately, it seems imagined scenes and scenarios can also be beneficial and we can wander literary landscapes free from social distancing demands. While many will prefer to facilitate vicarious visits through non-fiction if, like me, you’re a fiction freak, there are plenty of places to find your nature fix. But be warned, if there are people present they won’t all smell of roses: the last in my list is probably the most upbeat!
If you like your wild places wild, I strongly recommend Polly Clark’s Tiger in which three disparate characters are united by their respect for the Siberian tiger and, eventually, a particular female who patrols a territory of 500 square miles in one of the harshest environments on earth.
An East Anglian farm in summer 1933, might seem tame by comparison and there are some lovely descriptions of rural life in nature writer Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley. But we know from the opening pages that something dreadful is to happen in this sympathetic portrayal of a mind unravelling in the context of a community that is likewise losing its way.
East Anglia is a little too flat for my liking, so let’s lace up our walking boots and head to the Italian Alps. The Eight Mountains by Paolo Cognetti, translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre, is a lovely lyrical coming-of-age story about mountains, masculinity and family relationships with unbridgeable gaps.
If you want less sky, join me in the Canadian forest with Sarah Leipciger, author of The Mountain Can Wait, a poignant tale of family and fatherhood and the conflicts between work and home. At the opposite end of the Americas, Nothing but Dust by Sandrine Collette, translated from the French by Alison Anderson, is a startlingly honest account of the harshness of life on the Patagonian steppe and the impact of a mother’s inability to love either herself or her sons.
At this time of year, I’m up with the sun most mornings and can catch the ornithological chorus outside my door. If that’s your kind of thing, you might enjoy Bird Cottage by Eva Meijer, translated from the Dutch by Antoinette Fawcett. It’s a heart-warming – but unsentimental – novel about an inspiring woman: English eccentric, lay scientist, talented musician and ornithologist with the courage to live life on her own terms.
Ebooks are probably safer at the moment, but we do have some choice in how we get hold of them, as we do for print.
Your local bookshop might be closed but, if you want it to survive the crisis, do check whether they’re open to email orders which they’ll deliver themselves or send through the mail. Alternatively, there are online retailers who will donate a portion of their profits to your nominated shop: Hive in the UK and Indiebound in the US (I’m not sure if the latter actually sells books – let me know!)
Some of these also supply ebooks, as do small independent publishers. Do support them if you can!
Let’s get social!
Have you read any of these novels? Have I tempted you to try something new? Can you suggest any other books to help us face, flee or forget the pandemic?
Do you know of any initiatives to support independent bookshops and small presses at the moment? If so, spread the word below!
If you want some advice on finding a novel on a particular theme or in a specific location, just ask. If I can’t help you, someone else probably can.
This post comes from Rough Writer Anne Goodwin
Anne Goodwin posts about reading and writing on her blog Annecdotal, with around ten novel reviews a month. A former clinical psychologist, she’s also the author of two novels and a short story collection with small independent press Inspired Quill.
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