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As 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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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