The Best Books to Read in Quarantine
In this blog post, Susan Watkins, Professor of Women’s Writing in the School of Cultural Studies and Humanities, has some suggestions for leisure reading during this difficult time.
The first thing to say is that many people – even former book lovers – are finding it hard to read anything at all – and if this applies to you then don’t feel bad. We all need time to adjust. It might be worth trying something different from the kind of leisure reading you usually like and it might also prove motivating to join a book group, many of which have moved online for the duration and are meeting via social media.
I have heard of lots of people who are finding crime fiction and historical fiction enjoyable right now. The appeal of crime fiction is obvious: we tend to get the satisfaction of finding out ‘who done it’ and also a sense that the detective figure is able to impose order and rationality on chaos. Of course, this applies more to what is known as ‘golden age’ detective fiction (Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie) than the ‘hard-boiled’ genre (Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett). For something a bit different try Dorothy L. Sayers’s Gaudy Night (1935), set in a fictional Oxford women’s college, or Josephine Tey, The Franchise Affair (1948), which involves the investigation of a mother and daughter accused of kidnapping a local young woman and forcing her to become their servant.
The big hitter right now in terms of historical fiction is obviously Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, published in March. This concludes her trilogy of novels about the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s right-hand man. It was Cromwell who engineered the end of Henry’s first marriage to Catherine of Aragon and his second marriage to Anne Boleyn. Subsequently, when Anne also failed to provide a male heir, she was accused of treason and beheaded. The Mirror and the Light takes us from that point to Cromwell’s own demise, incorporating two more of Henry’s marriages and the dissolution of the monasteries along the way. The final volume is over 800 pages long and all three novels have a big cast of characters. The internecine rivalries of the court at this time can be demanding if you don’t have a sense of the history, and personally I’m not sure the final volume has the pace of the previous two, but it is a very immersive reading experience.
Some of Mantel’s other work is also definitely worth a look: try her memoir, Giving up the Ghost (2003) as well as earlier fiction An Experiment in Love (1995) (a girl escapes her working-class background via university – or does she?) and Beyond Black (2005) (about a medium who genuinely can see dead people). Another hugely enjoyable historical fiction writer is Sarah Waters, whose neo-Victorian novels, as well as her three books set in the early twentieth century, focus on LGBTQ lives, especially the lives of women. My favourites are Affinity (1999), and the two novels set in the 1940s: The Little Stranger (2009) – a very creepy read – and The Night Watch (2006), which is set during WWII and right after. If you like crime fiction too then The Paying Guests (2014), set in the 1920s, also contains a murder.
Fiction does not have to be purely escapist: via narration, imagination and empathy with others it can comment on the world around us and can help us to engage with and process what is happening now, and what happened in the past and in other parts of the world. That is why those of us who study literature do so. For anyone who does want to approach our current situation via fiction, there are a number of ways to go. If you want to read about pandemics of the past, try Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year (1722). Other novels which cover this topic include French novelist Albert Camus’ 1947 novel The Plague (La Peste), which, according to the Guardian, is ‘leading the surge in pestilence fiction’: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/mar/28/albert-camus-novel-the-plague-la-peste-pestilence-fiction-coronavirus-lockdown
One of the best recent novels to take a pandemic as its starting point is Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014), set amongst a troupe of strolling players who perform Shakespeare’s plays across the settlements of a North America devastated 20 years previously by a killer outbreak of flu. Mandel’s novel is a good example of the genre of post-apocalyptic fiction, which, along with dystopian fiction, has become increasingly popular with readers, particularly Young Adult readers.
I’ve been researching this topic for a number of years, and my book on contemporary women’s post-apocalyptic fiction has just been published: https://www.palgrave.com/gb/book/9781137486493
My book argues that contemporary women’s work in this genre avoids conservatism, a nostalgic mourning for the past, and a focus on restoring what has been lost, aspects key to much male authored apocalyptic fiction, such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) or Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse (2007). Instead, contemporary women writers show readers the ways in which patriarchy and neo-colonialism are intrinsically implicated in the disasters they envision, and offer qualified hope for a new beginning for society, culture and literature after an imagined apocalyptic event. For example, another great novelist who re-imagines the USA after a social breakdown and devastating climate change is Octavia Butler. However, Butler’s Parable novels (1993-1998) have her heroine create a new religion called Earthseed, whose only beliefs are that ‘God is change’ and that humanity’s future lies beyond the stars!
Let’s hope that once the world-wide outbreak of Covid 19 is resolved, we don’t just turn back to how things were before. This situation offers us the chance to change things rather than return to the status quo ante. How about permanently acknowledging that ‘low skilled’ workers (often women and migrants) are actually essential workers and rewarding them accordingly? And how about admitting that our treatment of our climate, environment and the world around us needs to change too? I believe that women writers working in the dystopian and post-apocalyptic genres are actually showing us the way.
Susan Watkins is Professor in the School of Cultural Studies and Humanities and Director of the Centre for Culture and the Arts. She is an expert in contemporary women's fiction and feminist theory.