During these dubious and unprecedented days many of us will be spending isolated, I often find that the antidote for my anxiety comes in the form of an engrossing and powerful novel. As these next few weeks will undoubtedly be unsettling, here is a compilation of novels which will offer a mental escape from these harrowing and fraught times.
If you can, order your books from independent bookshops, which have been put under immense strain due to Covid-19. Many now offer free delivery services across the UK, so help support these small businesses and order online or via the phone!
My Brilliant Friend, By Elena Ferrante
A beautiful and igniting read, My Brilliant Friend was my companion during my first few days of self-isolating. As the title indicates, this is a novel centred around the friendship of Elena and Lila, trying to navigate school, sex and their limited opportunities in 1950s Naples. Ferrante constructs a heartfelt bildungsroman, beautifully capturing the essence of their poor yet spirited neighbourhood. She writes ferociously about the complexity of female friendships, unveiling their intensity, tenderness and depth, with chilling undercurrents of violence running beneath its pages. This is the perfect novel to immerse yourself in during these solitary weeks, especially as the relationships in our lives become ever more important.
A Heart So White, by Javiar Marias
This novel is a fascinating meditation on the nature of betrayal, long kept secrets and the irrevocable past. It begins with a family dinner, whereby Teresa, newly married, exits the dinner table, goes to the bathroom and shoots herself in the heart. We are then inserted into the mind of Juan, whose father was married to Teresa before he married Juan’s mother. The novel begins to untangle the ambiguities of the past, enveloping two generations together, exposing the disturbing secret Juan’s life is built upon. Written in long, intricate prose, Marias crafts his novel with great diligence and immense insight into the human psyche. Philosophical, captivating and strangely harrowing, A Heart So White is an enchanting read.
The Secret History, by Donna Tartt
“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.” By the very opening line of the novel, we learn that Bunny has been killed, and Richard, the narrator, is partly responsible. Thus begins an engrossing murder mystery, whereby Tartt meditates on the notion of sin, culpability and guilt. Set in New England, following the lives of six classic students at the elite Hampton College, Richard becomes intoxicated by the eccentricity and intimidating intellect of his new group of friends, who quickly isolate themselves from the rest campus, becoming enveloped in their own secret society, with rules and rituals inspired by Greek texts. Placing his privileged friends on a pedestal, Richard disregards common morality and virtue, desperate to remain part of their exclusionary group. As he slowly unveils the events leading up to Bunny’s death, the narrator ponders on questions of human nature and morality, examining whether we can ever truly escape our sinful pasts.
Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel
If there was ever a time to start this trilogy, now would be that time. I had been reluctant to start reading this novel, as I don’t often enjoy reading historical fiction. However, Mantel’s style of writing is so astute and immersive, I found myself lost in the streets of 16th century England. Depicting the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell, from the abused son of a poor blacksmith, to the powerful right-hand adviser of Henry VIII, Mantel transports us into the Tudor era, with its corrupt politics, religious feuds and brutal punishments. We see, through the eyes of the Cromwell, the lengths Henry will take in his bid for a son, and England’s subsequent denouncement of Catholicism. It is ultimately a story about the fickle and corrupting nature of power, told through the eyes of an implacable and deeply fascinating character.
A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara
This novel follows the lives of four friends, having just graduated from a prestigious Massachusetts college, who move to New York to chase their dreams. The story narrows its focus onto Jude, as we slowly learn of his tragic past, fearing he will never be freed from his unspeakable trauma, and thus becoming increasingly more broken and destructive as the novel progresses. Written with a tender and raw poignancy, A Little Life is an astonishing and heartbreaking read, rich in uninhibited emotion. You will find yourself reading this book into the early hours of the morning.
Words by Sylvia O’Hara