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Lockdown Literature: Concepts of Home

Lockdown forced us to become more familiar with our homes and neighbourhoods. Some have been delighted to discover new treasures on our doorsteps … or even behind the sofa. It left others desperate to get away. Perhaps you’ve felt a mixture of both?

The title of my novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, promises a homecoming, but it’s not straightforward. Is it ever? Whether readers consider the promise fulfilled depends on the identity of Matilda Windsor and on their concept of home. Is home where we feel most comfortable or where we spend most of our time?

Home means different things to my three main characters. Matty has spent fifty years in Ghyllside psychiatric hospital but, in her head, she’s a society hostess in a stately home. Henry, a local government officer approaching retirement, lives alone in the house where he was born, but he can’t make it homely without his sister, who left when he was a boy. Janice, a social worker in her early twenties, rents a one-bedroom flat, but still considers the house she grew up in, and the one she shared as a student with friends, as home.

Home is a popular theme in fiction; one poignant and funny novel that shaped me as a writer is Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, which I read in my teens. However, I created my character Matty, the beating heart of Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, with a much older heroine in mind. In Emma Healey’s beautiful debut, Elizabeth Is Missing, dementia is shrinking Maud’s world (and brain). As her life becomes more confusing, her house is a retreat, but eventually she’ll be too disabled to stay there safely on her own. Perhaps she’ll move in with her daughter, or be admitted to a ‘home’.

Can hospital be home for long-term residents? Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest  suggests not. As outlined in my post, Resettlement revisited in my novel Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home, part of the motivation for the asylum closures was to give former patients somewhere to live that was more like a home.

If it’s hard for vulnerable adults to feel at home within residential services, how much harder must it be for children in the care system? In My Name Is Leon, Kit de Waal shows how tough life can be for looked-after children, especially if they are black. Silver, in Hope Farm by Peggy Frew, does have the luxury of living with her mother, but she longs to leave the commune so she can have her to herself.

For people violently uprooted, reconnection can take generations, as Yaa Gyasi illustrates in her magnificent debut about the enslavement of people from the region of Africa that is now Ghana, Homegoing. As Ben Fountain explores in the satire Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, return is also complicated for young men who’ve been damaged since leaving, especially when their individuality is denied and they are being used as political pawns.

I could go on; there must be thousands of novels about home.

Which is your favourite and what does it tell us

about the meaning of home?

Anne Goodwin is the author of three novels and a short story collection with small independent press Inspired Quill.

Anne posts about reading and writing on her blog Annecdotal.

Fiction goes to work

It’s too early to say whether lockdown will permanently change the boundaries between work and home. For all the benefits of curtailing commuting, many have missed the water-cooler conversations and the nine-to-five routine. Zoom fatigue is common, although online meetings have provided some amusing stories: the judge who spoke from behind a cat filter; the executive who unwittingly invited his colleagues to watch him take a shower. We’ve yet to see how those stories will translate into novels; in the meantime, let’s consider a few set in the workplace in pre-pandemic times. As usual with my lockdown literature posts, clicking on the title will take you to the review on my blog.

Behind the glamour

Ever fantasised about being an astronaut? Jaroslav Kalfar’s debut is a lovely novel that almost defies description. While some novels suffer from the weight of too many stories, Spaceman of Bohemiamanages 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.

Although we’re generally aware of the murk behind the make-up of show business, we’re still drawn to the glitter. In her beautifully accomplished debut about Hollywood history, Delayed Rays of a Star, Amanda Lee Koe presents the personalities behind the performance, entwined with the politics of prejudice and the murky world beneath the sparkle of cinema.

With a more contemporary setting, Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu, is a playful novel, set out like a screenplay, raising serious issues about identity, stereotypes and cinema, and the invisibility of people of Asian origin in the narrative of the American dream.

Doing the dirty work

Some jobs are unusual and glamorous. Others are just unusual.

The men in The Butchers, by Ruth Gilligan, are a world away from your high-street butcher, although their job involves killing cows. This is a beautifully written and compassionate story of four characters adapting to major change in their personal lives while their native Ireland catapults into the twenty-first century, wrapped up in a mystery involving a disturbing photograph.

Also about butchering, Tender Is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica, is a refreshingly light, but not lightweight, dystopian novel about cannibalism, with themes of animal welfare, our collective disregard for humans deemed different to us, alongside the dehumanising culture of some types of work.

I could recommend a fair few novels about warfare, but I’ve selected one with a focus on the backroom boys of the battlefield. Louisa Hall’s Trinity, is a beautifully written meditation on bombs and betrayal, patriotism and paranoia around the development, deployment and aftermath of the original weapon of mass destruction.

Drudgery

Work that’s inherently tedious can, in the right hands, be fascinating on the page. From the title, I’d never have imagined that Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata would be so entertaining. It’s a novella about the pressures to conform to societal norms of female identity, translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori.

A central character with no history or context beyond his working life. A focus on office life that fails to clarify the purpose of the work undertaken. An enigma that is never completely resolved. A plain understated style. For a glimpse of the absurdity of work, I recommend Jonas Karlsson’s novella The Room: a marvellous Kafkaesque fable about office politics, diversity and differing versions of reality.

I also enjoyed Tom Fletcher’s novel about a milkman: Witch Bottle is a literary horror novel set in rural Cumbria about a man whose childhood trauma has left him in terror of his repressed potential for violence.

Working outdoors

If I’d ever fancied being a delivery person, Daniel’s milk round would have shown me the error of my ways. But after months in lockdown, many yearn to spend more time outdoors. Why brave the elements, when we can read about it in a book?

Nothing but Dust by Sandrine Collette is a startlingly honest account of the harshness of life on the Patagonian steppe and the impact of a mother’s inability to love both herself and her sons.

Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Borderis a gorgeous novel, about sex, class and old-fashioned sexism; the impact of a chaotic childhood; the prospect of Scottish independence; and the harsh realities of land management that the townies, with their idealised notions of the countryside, don’t understand. It’s about the compromise between freedom and comfort, the border between civilisation and the wild.

A career cut short

The performing arts have perhaps suffered most during the pandemic, but this novel is a reminder that other illnesses can prematurely curtailed careers. Every Note Playedis the story of a concert pianist suffering from motor neurone disease. I loved this for the author’s compassion for her flawed characters, and the emotional range and depth. Although often wary of a redemption-through-catastrophe-or-suffering narrative, I really appreciated eavesdropping on this family’s bumpy journey to some kind of resolution.

Novels about novelists

I tend to avoid tales of fictional writers, but A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne is so outrageously entertaining, I couldn’t resist. It’s an engrossing study of envy, narcissism and naked ambition in and outside the literary world. I’m sure no-one reading this bears any resemblance to the main character.

Would you set a novel in your own workplace?

One reason I’m not keen on writers as characters, is it can feel as if the author has taken the easy way out. Instead of researching a more interesting occupation, they’ve reproduced their own.

On the other hand, a writer’s day job – or in my case, former career – can provide a deep well of inspiration, while captivating readers to whom it’s unfamiliar. At least I hope so, as I’m about to publish a novel set in a fictionalised version of the long-stay psychiatric hospital where I worked for over a decade from the mid-1980s. I’m entertaining my newsletter subscribers with some of the back story to Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home. Why not join us and get a free e-book of prize-winning short stories: bit.ly/daughtershorts.

In the dying days of the old asylums, three paths intersect.

Henry was only a boy when he waved goodbye to his glamorous grown-up sister; approaching sixty, his life is still on hold as he awaits her return.

As a high-society hostess renowned for her recitals, Matty’s burden weighs heavily upon her, but she bears it with fortitude and grace.

Janice, a young social worker, wants to set the world to rights, but she needs to tackle challenges closer to home.

A brother and sister separated by decades of deceit. Will truth prevail over bigotry, or will the buried secret keep family apart?

In this, her third novel, Anne Goodwin has drawn on the language and landscapes of her native Cumbria and on the culture of long-stay psychiatric hospitals where she began her clinical psychology career.

Anne Goodwin posts about reading and writing on her blog Annecdotal, with around ten novel reviews a month. Anne is the author of two novels and a short story collection with small independent press Inspired Quill.

Add your reading recommendations to the comments.

Tell me also, would you set a novel in your own workplace?

Lockdown literature: LGBT history

One of the hallmarks of a healthy society is our attitude to diversity. So whatever our sexuality and gender identity, we should care about LGBT rights. In February, LGBT+ history month provides the prompt to educate ourselves on how societal responses to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people have fluctuated over time. It’s an opportunity to celebrate diversity and, lest we get complacent, arm ourselves against possible erosion of rights in the future. And the good news is we can do so through literature!

From ancient times

The ancient Greeks valued male to male romantic love and sexual activity (albeit often with a power imbalance we condemn today). Winner of the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction, Madeleine Miller’s The Song of Achilles evokes the passionate love between Achilles and Patroclus beyond the battlefields of the Trojan War. While grounded in historical detail, the psychology of the characters renders this novel highly relatable for the contemporary reader.

The unnamed narrator of John Boyne’s A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom glides through history via multiple incarnations from biblical times to the election of Donald Trump. His tenderness and passion for projects traditionally the female province means he’ll never earn his father’s approval, while his sister, a better fit for the masculine stereotype, is ignored. Meanwhile, same-sex couplings, while officially non-existent and often invisible to the narrator, crop up again and again.

Traditions of gender fluidity

As far as I recall from my reading, John Boyne’s hero never lives as a hijra: a traditional male to female gender identity in the Indian subcontinent. The Parcelby Bombay-born Canadian writer Anosh Irani is by far the best novel I’ve read about the culture of India’s third sex. Madhu has fled her disapproving father as an adolescent boy to become one of the most celebrated prostitutes in central Bombay, but now she’s reduced to begging. And preparing trafficked children for penetrative sex, making this one of the most disturbing – but nevertheless important – novels I’ve ever read.

Fiction has also introduced me to cultures in which girls can pass as male, albeit to fulfil a social function rather than from personal preference. As I learnt from Nadia Hashimi’s novel, The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, in the Afghan tradition bacha posh, a family with surplus daughters can give one a change of clothes and a haircut, and let her attend school, wrestle with friends and run errands to the market, while her sisters are confined to the home.

Same-sex love

Sebastian Barry’s novel, Days Without End, which won the 2016 Costa Book of the Year Award, is a story of migration and massacre; of bravery and brutality; of family, friendship and gender fluidity told in the unique voice of an Irishman in 1850s America. Teenagers Thomas and John work in a bar dressed as girls until, at seventeen, they join the U.S. Army, remaining a couple through peace and war.

War can bring opportunities to those stifled by sexual convention. With the men away, World War II spelt liberation for some women. Sarah Waters’ 2006 novel, The Night Watch, is a love story told in reverse about three lesbian women amid the excitement and terrors of wartime London.

Sex between men, however, seems to have been punished just as harshly during that period. Duncan, another of Waters’ characters, is imprisoned for his sexual liaisons, whereas Alec, the Alan Turing character in Will Eaves’ novel,Murmur, winner of both the Republic of Consciousness and Wellcome prizes in 2019, is made to submit to chemical castration.

Trans rights

In the same decade that Turing underwent the treatment that led to his suicide, Britain’s first trans woman, racing driver and former Second World War fighter pilot, Roberta Cowell was preparing for surgery. In 1972, Jan Morris, a renowned Welsh journalist and travel writer who had also served successfully in the military, travelled to Casablanca for gender confirmation surgery, as recounted in her memoir, Conundrum.

My own novel,Sugar and Snails, shortlisted for the 2016 Polari First Book Prize, contrasts the secrecy around trans issues in the 1970s small-town Britain with the increasing acceptance during the early years of the twenty-first century, and highlights the still contested issue of adolescent transition.

HIV/AIDS

The final decades of the twentieth century saw the gay community devastated by a deadly disease. My reading features two books spanning Ireland and America. Anne Enright’s The Green Road encompasses various millennial issues through the stories of siblings whose mother wants them home for Christmas. Among the adult children is Dan, who, having ditched his original ambition to become a priest, grieves for friends and acquaintances lost to HIV/AIDS in New York. In Martin Sixsmith’s non-fiction book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, a woman’s search for the son she gave up for adoption, leads to the US where the author confronts Reagan’s Republicans’ complacency about the crisis.

In these eleven books, I’ve only touched the surface of LGBT history. Now it’s your turn to add your favourites and tell me what I’ve missed.

Anne Goodwin is an English author and book blogger. Her debut novel, Sugar and Snails, about a woman who has kept her past identity a secret for thirty years, was shortlisted for the 2016 Polari First Book Prize. Throughout February, subscribers to her newsletter can read Sugar and Snails for free.

Subscribe here: https://www.subscribepage.com/sugar-and-snails-free-e-book

Website: annegoodwin.weebly.com

Twitter @Annecdotist

Book blog Annecdotal

Link tree https://linktr.ee/annecdotist

Amazon author page: viewauthor.at/AnneGoodwin

YouTube: Anne Goodwin’s YouTube channel

Lockdown literature: Women in translation

Lockdown Literature by Anne Goodwin

Diversity is the hallmark of the Ranch, with an international group of writers bringing our unique perspectives to the weekly flash fiction prompt. But what about diversity in our reading?

There is some evidence that reading diverse benefits our brains, and, if language affects thought, there can’t be a better way of accessing a mindset different to one’s own than reading novels in translation. Unfortunately, far less fiction is translated into English than from English, with the former comprising under 3% of the translation market. Furthermore, only about a quarter of literature translated into English is written by women; thankfully August’s Women in Translation Month, can help us get our hands on those rare gems.

Following on from my guest post in April on facing, fleeing or forgetting the virus through fiction, and June’s post on sleep, pandemics, healthcare and political satire, may I offer you some recommendations of novels by female authors translated into English (and/or American)? As physical international travel remains difficult, it’s a great way of virtually visiting other countries. If any of these novels seem promising, clicking on the link will take you to a longer review on my blog.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

Keiko has worked in a convenience store since it opened, eighteen years before. That’s half her life. Considered odd since early childhood – although she perceives herself as logical and accommodating – she seems to have found her niche. The beep of the tills is soothing and the rigid phrases with which she’s been trained to greet the customers removes all the messy uncertainties from social interaction. The management injunction to maintain her mind and body in a fit state to do the job ensures that she eats properly and gets enough sleep. Unfortunately, Keiko is about to be pushed out of her comfort zone.

If you relish the zany, be sure to grab a copy of this novella about the pressures to conform to societal norms of female identity, translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori and published by Portobello Books.

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors

Sonja is learning to drive, but her first teacher won’t allow her to change gear and her second covers her hand on the gear stick with his. Now in her 40s, Sonja moved from rural Jutland to Copenhagen as a student, but now feels lonely, unable to reconnect with her sister and nostalgic for the dramatic landscapes of her childhood. It’s perhaps no coincidence that she finds herself better at reversing than driving forward, but can she embrace the future without backtracking on life?

With a perfect balance of poignancy and humour this, in Misha Hoekstra’s translation from Danish, is another lovely story about navigating contemporary life as a single woman, published by Pushkin Press.

The Unit by Ninni Holnqvist

Dorrit isn’t needed. With no dependents, no long-term cohabiting relationships and a patchy employment record, she’s never been needed. Relishing the freedom to please herself and having ample thinking space for her writing, she was fine with that. Until her fiftieth birthday loomed. Not because she was afraid of ageing but because at that point she’d be decreed dispensable and obliged to relocate to a community of similarly economically worthless men and women …

This dystopian novel, translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy and published by Oneworld Publications, explores whether lives can be sacrificed for the greater good.

Waking Lions by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

Eitan Green, a promising neurosurgeon, has relocated with his wife and two young sons from Tel Aviv to the culturally and geologically dusty city of Beersheba. One night, after an exhausting shift at the hospital, he knocks someone down in the desert. Seeing that the man, a migrant from Eritrea, is beyond help, Eitan drives off. He is still battling his guilt when the victim’s widow knocks at his door. There’s a price for Sirkit’s silence, to be paid not in money, but in sleepless nights running a makeshift hospital for illegal immigrants, which will risk his health, his marriage, his official job and, eventually, his life.

This engaging novel about the lengths to which we go to evade our responsibilities towards our fellow human beings is translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston and published by Pushkin Press.

Her Father’s Daughter by Marie Sizun

At four and a half, the child is blissfully content in the Paris apartment she shares with her mother. The war means little to her and, while her grandmother disapproves of her freedom, her mother always takes her side. The only cloud in her blue-sky world is the lie told by the two older women when they insisted she’d imagined the baby sister presented to her mother in a Normandy hospital. Now the war is coming to an end and the father she’s never met will be returning home. The child is unable to share her mother’s excitement. All too quickly, this stranger has taken over the apartment. His standards are exacting, his rage when they are not met terrifying.

This poignant story of lost innocence, and of the casual mistreatment of children, is translated from the French by Adriana Hunter and published by Peirene Press.

When the Doves Disappeared by Sofi Oksanen

Cousins Roland and Edgar have grown up together, although they’ve never seen eye to eye. But they find their paths crossing as they hide out in the forest of their native Estonia, on the run from the Red Army. When the Nazis drive out the Communists, Roland goes deeper into hiding, while Edgar reinvents himself with a new name, and a post in the new regime. Edgar’s wife Juudit finds the love that he has never been able to give her in the arms of Helmuth, an officer in the German army. Roland realises he can use her to help members of the resistance escape to safety …

Moving back and forth between the early 1940s and 1960s, this complex novel, translated from Finnish by Lola M Rogers and published by Atlantic Books, examines the near-impossibility of living a moral life under occupation by forces at both extremes of the political spectrum.

Hotel Silence by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

Lonely, and sick of life, forty-nine-year-old Jónas decides to end it all. Considering it far too messy to kill himself at home, he buys a one-way ticket to an erstwhile tourist destination, recently ravaged by civil war. But he can’t hold himself aloof from the horrors: a traumatised child; the assumption that everyone still alive has killed someone; rape as a tool of war. Then there are the opportunist entrepreneurs who perceive the chaos as potential profit, like the unpleasant man in the room a few doors down. Will Jónas rethink his decision?

Despite the painful topic, the tone is light: a quirky upbeat story of a handyman who takes his toolbox and thoughts of suicide to a troubled country, translated from the Icelandic by Brian FitzGibbon and published by Pushkin Press.

Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel

Under a bridge in Leibniz, East Germany, alongside the canal that has been part of her life since childhood, Gabriela writes her autobiography on stolen scraps of paper in the pauses between her daily struggles to find warmth and food. The only child of a top vascular surgeon and a popular society hostess, Gabriela’s early years are characterised by loneliness, obsession and the confusing contradictions of the State. As the years go by, her story is defined by a series of disappearances, unexplained to her but likely to result from the individual’s unpopularity with the Communist regime, such that, in the end, she can’t be sure she hasn’t been disappeared herself.

Translated from German by Jen Calleja, and published by Peirene Press, this is another cheerful novella about a cheerless subject: a woman who identifies as a writer and poet whose homelessness challenges the Communist ideal.

The Faculty of Dreams by Sara Stridsberg

Raped by her father since the age of seven, and witnessing her mother’s chaotic dependence, it’s perhaps not surprising Valerie Solanas dreams of a world without men. Leaving home with the typewriter she got for her fifteenth birthday, she finds a soulmate in a male prostitute she befriends on a campsite, but only she has the wherewithal to get to college. Then it’s on to grad school to study psychology, which seems to consist of tinkering with the physiology of mice. It’s here, along with her lover, Cosmogirl, that the seeds of the SCUM Manifesto – a radical feminist thesis which is both satirical and deadly serious – are sown.

Translated from the Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner and published by Maclehose Press, this is a literary fantasy derived from the life and work of Valerie Solanas, radical feminist and would-be assassin of Andy Warhol.

The Blue Room by Hanne Ørstavik

Although now an adult, Johanne is still preparing for life to begin. Sharing a cramped Oslo apartment with her mother, she’s studying hard at the university, dreaming of, and saving for, her future as a clinical psychologist in an idyllic woodland setting. While the mother-daughter relationship is enmeshed, the pair spending their leisure time together, they have separate lives during the weekday 9-to-5. The mother also has a lover – albeit one who is unlikely to leave his wife and family – but the relationship sours when Johanne acquires a lover too.

Translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin and published by Peirene Press in 2014, this is a coming-of-age story about a young woman’s sexual awakening conflicting with her desire to please and protect her mother.

The Wind That Lays Waste by Selva Almada

It’s ten years since Reverend Pearson abandoned his wife and her suitcase by the side of the road, and he’s been travelling with his teenage daughter, Leni, across northern Argentina ever since. When their car breaks down miles out of town, he trusts that God, through the mechanic, Gringo Brauer, will put it right. While he waits, he tries a spot of evangelising with the mechanic’s assistant, Tapioca. At sixteen, the boy is the same age as Leni, and also without a mother, having been left at the isolated garage half his lifetime ago. Brauer has treated him well enough, although, given he could already read and write, saw no need to send him to school, or church.

Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews and published by Charco Press, this is about the unexpected intimacy forced upon four lonely people – two motherless teenagers, an evangelical preacher and a cynical mechanic – when a car breaks down in the pause before a storm in rural Argentina.

Nothing but Dust by Sandrine Collette

Life’s hard for sheep and cattle farmers on the bleak Patagonian steppe, but it’s rendered yet harsher for four boys brought up on a ruined estancia without love. Especially for Rafael, born after their father’s departure, and relentlessly bullied by his big brothers from almost the moment he emerged from the womb. Raised on thrashings herself, the mother turns a blind eye to the child’s maltreatment and pins the blame on him when he staggers home, dirty, scratched and bruised. When the mother gambles one of the boys in a poker game, it seems that things can’t get any worse. But it could be that leaving the homestead is exactly what he needs. Although it might be too sentimental to expect an altogether happy ending, this is nevertheless an uplifting story of endurance and survival against the odds.

Translated from the French by Alison Anderson this is a startlingly honest account of the harshness of life on the Patagonian steppe and the impact of a mother’s inability to love on herself and her sons.

Sorry I’ve got a bit carried away here! So many great books! And all of them read before August 2019. If you’d like to know about the women in translation I’ve been reading since then (18 novels at the time of writing), come and visit my blog towards the end of next month.


I hope you’ve found something here to whet your appetite and do use the comments to add recommendations of your own. If you want 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.

In my next slot at the Ranch:

September 22: Fictional therapists (because I reckon half the world will be having therapy and the other half delivering it after this)


This post comes from Rough Writer Anne Goodwin

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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. Her second novel, about a man who keeps a woman locked up down in a cellar is another potential lockdown read.

Subscribe to Anne’s newsletter for a free e-book of prize-winning short stories.

Website: annegoodwin.weebly.com

Twitter @Annecdotist.

Lockdown literature: sleep, pandemics, healthcare and political satire

Lockdown Literature by Anne GoodwinAs lockdown loosens, yet with many social activities still out of bounds, are you running out of things to read? Following on from my guest post in April on facing, fleeing or forgetting the virus through fiction, I have a few more recommendations for you. The topical themes I’ve chosen this time are sleep, pandemics, healthcare and political satire. If any of these novels seem promising, clicking on the link will take you to a longer review on my blog.

Disturbed sleep

If anxiety wakes us in the wee small hours, is that a good time to read about fictional insomnia and sleep disturbance? If you’re tempted, you might consider these:

Jonathan Coe’s comic novel The House of Sleep is set in a clinic and research centre for sleep disorders that was previously a student hall of residence.  Although it relies on a number of coincidences to reunite the characters from the past  – including Sarah who suffers from narcolepsy and Terry Hill has insomnia – it’s a cracking read.

In another supposedly funny novel – although I found Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation desperately sad – an alienated young woman thinks that she can – and actually does – solve most of her problems through spending a year in a drug-induced stupor.

Caring for babies and young children is a common cause of sleeplessness that can leave parents, especially mothers, slightly unbalanced for years. In Kyra Wilder’s debut novel Little Bandaged Days the reader follows a young mother’s unravelling through a gradual process of sleeplessness, isolation and a determination to keep up appearances learnt at her mother’s knee. Besides being beautifully written, it’s a powerful argument for scepticism about an exhausted person’s gritted-teethed “I’m fine!”

A quick mention for two novels that aren’t about sleep but contain the word in the title: In the City of Love’s Sleep by Lavinia Greenlaw is described by the publishers as “a contemporary fable about what it means to fall in love in middle age”;  Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy  is about the violence behind the beauty and apparent serenity of India.

Novels featuring pandemics

In my previous post on lockdown literature, the section on novels about confinement and pandemics received a general thumbs down. So why give it space again? Because, back then, I had no idea how it might feel to read about a fictional pandemic when you’re in the middle of a real one, and now I do. My verdict? If you’re feeling fairly safe – anxious, perhaps, fed up but not panicking – and the book’s well-written, you don’t need to look away.

The Strange Adventures of H by Sarah Burton is a fun story about morality with echoes of our current pandemic and of the theatricals of its 17th-century setting. Reading this, I was impressed how quickly the authorities were able to contain an outbreak of plague in London, albeit by the Draconian practice of boarding up infected homes. I was also impressed by the author’s ability to anticipate the emotional atmosphere that must have felt strange at the time of writing but is so familiar now.

Set three centuries later, The Dark Circle by Linda Grant is about nineteen-year-old twins whose lives are interrupted when they are diagnosed with tuberculosis and banished from the East End of London to an isolated sanatorium in Kent. Will the somewhat snobbish community accept the lower-class arrivals foisted on them by the burgeoning NHS? Will the twins lose their vitality to the passivity of the patient role?

Healthcare

Hopefully we won’t need to be hospitalised with covid19 and, if we are, we’re unlikely to be in a fit state to read. These novels might make us especially grateful not to need to confront the limitations of our healthcare systems directly and help channel our campaigns for more investment.

I haven’t reviewed Lionel Shriver’s novel, So Much for That, but its dissection of the injustice of the US healthcare system through the experiences of two families has stayed fresh in my mind since I read it ten years ago. Maybe one to save for when this is over, or read now to hone your arguments with potential Trump supporters before the November vote.

In planning this piece in my head, I recalled The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss as a more reassuring read. But this story of family life disrupted when a fifteen-year-old collapses at school and suffers a cardiac arrest, is full of anger about public services in 21st-century Britain. Despite, or because of, the heavy subject matter, it’s also very funny, with beautiful writing and engaging descriptions.

If you fancy a laugh-out-loud novel about mental health, you can’t go wrong with Binnie Kirshenbaum’s Rabbits for Food. Although I wasn’t so taken with the second-half set on a New York psychiatric ward, the first half nails the experience of depression with mordant wit.

Political satire

Watching as our leaders congratulate themselves on mismanaging the crisis, with UK clown Boris Johnson appearing almost statesmanlike when set against President Trump, do we laugh or do we cry? Perhaps the most helpful thing I’ve done is to shout about my favourite read so far this year. Cleverly plotted, beautifully written (unless you object to a second-person narrative) and unashamedly political, Enter the Aardvark by Jessica Anthony is a trenchantly honest yet uplifting tale of populist politics, closet (literally in one case) homosexuality and wearing the skins of your enemy to get what you need.


I hope you’ve found something here to whet your appetite and do use the comments to add recommendations of your own. If you want 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.

I have two more slots at the Ranch this year and plan to venture out of lockdown with posts as follows:

July 28: Reading Women in Translation (because, even if we can’t travel physically, we can connect with other cultures through a book)

September 22: Fictional therapists (because I reckon half the world will be having therapy and the other half delivering it after this)

But I’m open to suggestions, so let me know if you have other ideas.


This post comes from Rough Writer Anne Goodwin

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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. Her second novel, about a man who keeps a woman locked up down in a cellar is another potential lockdown read.

Subscribe to Anne’s newsletter for a free e-book of prize-winning short stories.

Website: annegoodwin.weebly.com

Twitter @Annecdotist.

Lockdown literature: recommended reading for facing, fleeing or forgetting the virus through fiction

Lockdown Literature by Anne GoodwinWith 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.

Buying books

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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Subscribe to Anne’s newsletter for a free e-book of prize-winning short stories.

Website: annegoodwin.weebly.com

Twitter @Annecdotist.