By Holly Gilder
There has never been a better time to pick up a good book. Lockdown is in full swing, universities and schools are closed, pubs are shut, and the queue outside the supermarket is an hour long. Now is as good a time as any to make your way through that reading list that you have never had time for.
Whether you want to make a dent in the vast literary list of ‘must-reads’ or just want some trivial escapism from daily monotony, this list is a great place to start.
These recommendations range from medieval to modern, from humorous to hard-hitting, yet all promise to keep you occupied and distracted from daily tribulations.
Normal People, Sally Rooney
Sally Rooney has quickly become a name on everyone’s lips, and Normal People, her second novel, helps explain why. It follows the ever-changing relationship of two teenagers from County Sligo, tracing their interlocking lives as they grow into adulthood. Despite its unrevolutionary plot, however, it is far more than a teenage romance saga. Rooney seems to perfectly capture the complexities and realities of human relationships; hiding underneath this romantic frame story are complex political and literary references. In fact, as a young adult and also a university student, I found myself thinking, over and over again, how perfectly Rooney articulates thoughts and feelings that are so internalised I may not have even been aware I had them. It is that excellent moment of realization, ‘I’ve thought that’. The novel pioneers a new sort of realism that makes it perfect isolation reading; it captures fumbled conversations and embarrassment, but above all, it emphasises a feeling of connection and universality in human relationships and behaviour. With Normal People also set to become a TV series in late April, there is really no better time to read it than now!
Silas Marner, George Eliot
Perhaps one of George Eliot’s lesser-known, and more experimental novels, Silas Marner seems the perfect novel to read in isolation. Following the outcast and lonesome weaver Silas Marner, the novel explores the complexities of human society, judgement and alienation. In somewhat of a hybridity between Realism and Romance, Silas Marner also has a fantastic mythic component that gives the novel an almost fable-like atmosphere. Eliot’s precise story-telling weaves the plot together with foreshadowing, plot turns and vibrant description. Yet it is the vivid exploration of segregation and seclusion that makes Silas Marner a great current read. Eliot’s exploration of Silas’s solitary character, isolation and estrangement from quotidian society makes the novel an even more compelling, and biting read under our current circumstances.
Decline and Fall, Evelyn Waugh
Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall is a witty and fantastic novel, and what better way to break up your day than with a bit of laughter! Waugh follows, quite literally, the ‘Decline and Fall’ of Paul Pennyfeather after his expulsion from Oxford; the reader watches as the farce unfolds, Paul’s life falls from absurdity to absurdity and tragedy to comedy. With its Dickensian-style puns and general absurdity, Decline and Fall is a captivating and witty read. Its dark humour and satire, diverse cast of brilliant characters, and underlying snarky taunt at 1920s society all make this novel a perfect escape and, above all, a well needed injection of laughter!
Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
There has never been a better time to read Mrs Dalloway than in social isolation. Giving yourself time to slowly read through Woolf’s complex narrative will allow this novel to come to life, showing off Woolf’s full virtuosity and brilliance. Set over one day, the novel follows Mrs Dalloway through her daily tasks as she plans for a party that evening. Woolf uses this seemingly menial plot to explore multiplex characters and themes, uncovering the mentality of a post-war England, and divulging into the realities of mental illness, class antagonism and profound loneliness . For such a short novel it has deep psychological momentum, whilst also being incredibly witty and sardonic. As a book that has no chapters, it almost demands to be read in one sitting, so setting aside a day to read Mrs Dalloway would perhaps be the best way to experience the novel for the first time; and what better time to do it?
100 Years of Solitude, García Márquez
García Márquez’s 100 Years of Solitude, the Winner of the 1982 Nobel Prize in Literature, is a novel of undisputed critical acclaim. Following seven generations, Marquez plots life in a fictional town in Columba. The novel has an undeniable thematic focus on solitude (as the title would suggest), and Márquez combines this focus with colonial Latin American history. Yet this is married with the supernatural, bestowing the novel with its recognised Magical realism and fantastical absurdity, that makes it such a page-turner. With its vibrant characters, interconnected plot and brilliant fantasy, it is a novel that truly demands reading. It has been highly recognised for its layers of meaning and complexity that encourage this novel to be read over and over again. It is a spirited and rousing book that would make the perfect Isolation read, especially if you have the time to read it again and again.
The Canterbury Tales, Geoffery Chaucer
The Canterbury Tales are perhaps the most famous and well-read of medieval literature. Whether you attempt it in the original Middle English or go for a slightly easier modern translation, these diverse range of stories are definitely worth giving a go. Chaucer’s beguiling collection is supposedly told by 31 Pilgrims (though the work was never finished) and thus, range from the tragic to the romantic and the absurd. In fact, it is this intense variation of style across the tales that make them so stimulating. Not only are they full of witty, crude and exciting tales, but the unfinished nature of the work leaves the reader to answer the story’s opening question ‘which tale is best. ’ Each reader can decide for themselves which of the Pilgrims’ stories are their favourite, or simply pick and choose their preferred style, be it the Knight’s chivalric adventure, the Miller’s jibing comedy, or the Wife of Bath’s headstrong rhetoric, there is something for all tastes.
Ulysses, James Joyce
Here’s one I’ve found myself putting off under the pretence ‘If only I had the time’, well now I do! Ulysses is an undisputed classic of modernist literature but has turned many worried readers away with its length, narrative style and arduous flowing prose. It comes wrapped up in notions of difficulty. Yet Ulysses really is compulsory reading, infact many have argued it is one the most extraordinary books ever written. With its parodic and particular style, it is a book bursting with imagination and expertise and has become a hallmark in both Irish and Modernist literary canons. Yet, it is also a book that is astonishingly moving, covering loneliness, marriage, and the want to create a life for oneself. Even if you need to reread every page, use chapter summaries, or even listen to it as an audiobook, Ulysses is definitely worth reading now while we have the time.
The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
The Grapes of Wrath is a story of plight, hardship and great impoverishment in 1930s, Post-Depression, America. Following the Joad’s family and their journey to California, Steinbeck poses key questions of the reality of the American promise. Yet, this novel seems to be a perfect read during isolation. Intertwined in his journalistic tone are deep, emotive and authentic reactions to national deprivation. It tackles important problems of class divisions during crisis, illuminating the adverse effects of hardship on the agrarian population of Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl. Considering the current and looming economic effects of COVID-19, and its showing emphasis on existent class divides, Steinbeck’s telling narrative feels more powerful than ever, and asks key questions of the lasting effects of the Pandemic. Yet, there also seem to be strings of hope that tie the novel together; though often this hope may seem momentary, Steinbeck weaves it throughout the novel, and it becomes a driving force for action. Such a hopeful spirit seems incredibly potent in the current atmosphere, explaining why The Grapes of Wrath becomes such a perfect and moving read during isolation.
White Teeth, Zadie Smith
Zadie Smith’s debut novel, White Teeth, follows the lives of post-war friends Samad Iqbal and Archie Jones, and the realities of contemporary multicultural London. It is a novel of excellent energy and pace, full of clever and sly comedy. Yet perhaps at its core, the novel asks, as Caryl Phillips asserted: “Who are we? Why are we here?”. Now more than ever, these questions seem to have a reverberant quality, as our daily lives and practices seem to have shifted so suddenly. Furthermore, White Teeth’s direct and uncompromising style makes it an eye-opening and stunning novel. It goes without saying that it is definitely worth a read.
Housekeeping, Marylin Robinson
Marylin Robinson’s stand-alone novel, Housekeeping, has bestowed her critical acclaim. Following the lives of two Orphans in Idaho, who eventually settle with their drifter aunt Sylvie, the novel is a captivating exploration of societal and familial affiliation. Robinson’s distinctive abundant and melodic language makes the novel a simple pleasure to read, and her aesthetic sensibility has given her great praise. But it is not only a novel of rich and fastidious prose and imagination, it also explores the central theme of solitude. As the twins grow increasingly distant, Robinson asks biting questions of the importance of human connection and belonging; the novel seems preoccupied with understanding societal judgement and estrangement. Furthermore, the novel has also been made into a beautiful film by Bill Forsyth which will be irresistible after reading. Most importantly, it is a novel that you can truly lose yourself in; with its meditative tone and enchanting diction, it also becomes the perfect escape. Housekeeping truly is a ‘must-read’.