Discussion: Reading Fiction in Unreal Times

Over the past few weeks, the world we live in has shifted and shrunk. My own routine has collapsed. My son’s toddler groups have closed, my office has shut and even walking down to the local shops has become a risky venture. To visit the local supermarket, I armed myself with gloves and hand sanitiser. I steeled myself to not touch my face. Yet the worst part was how the produce aisle had been stripped bare, the freezers pillaged, the bread aisle barren. I felt the tight squeeze of panic in my chest. I am currently existing in a world where I cannot guarantee my family’s food supply chain. I am scared, not just of the virus but of what it has done to the landscape around me. And, as always in times of strain, I am turning towards books to help me make sense of it.

Like many people, COVID-19 drew my mind back to Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven. I reread it in under a week, finding it alternately comforting and terrifying. On the one hand, it depicts a society crumbling incredibly quickly. The fictional Georgia Flu hits fast and within days, TV newsreaders are replaced by cameramen and then the broadcast itself switches to old episodes of America’s Got Talent until finally it just switches off. What is striking is both how little time it takes but also how stubbornly people cling on to their former values. Twenty years on, the Travelling Symphony are a touring Shakespeare company who roam America using the slogan ‘Survival is Insufficient’. In another corner, Clark runs ‘The Museum of Civilisation’ in an abandoned airport, making an exhibition out of defunct technology. I love Station Eleven because it is not about the grim realities of dystopia but rather concerns itself with who we choose to be and what we choose to be important when there is no outside authority to instruct us on how to behave. Think about that next time you’re stockpiling toilet roll.

Another book that has been on my mind is A Parcel of Patterns. I last read this over twenty years ago now but it is truly the novel for our new age of self-isolation. Based on true events, a seventeenth-century tailor working in the village of Eyam received a delivery of cloth from plague-infested London. Within a week, the tailor’s assistant had died and the disease spread rapidly through his household. The village put itself under a self-imposed lockdown. Nobody went in or out. Each family buried its own dead. They met for church in an outside field so that they could still practice social distancing. A Parcel of Patterns tells the story of Mall, a young girl living in Eyam who finds herself separated from her betrothed, who lives in another village. It’s interesting to read about a society where social responsibility to stop the disease from spreading is taken so seriously. In our own society which promotes the right of the individual, it is proving difficult to bend the curve and prevent further infection.

But although I could enjoy a lazy Sunday as much as the next person, there is a lot more going on than simply settling down for a series of quiet nights in. As the days have gone on, I keep being reminded of a third book, The Mennyms Under Siege. For those unfamiliar with Sylvia Waugh’s superb Mennyms series, it centres around a family of life-sized rag dolls who masquerade as humans (it’s less weird than it sounds). Over the course of five books, they try to keep a roof over their heads without their true identity being discovered. In the third book, the patriarch Sir Magnus becomes convinced that they are on the brink of discovery and repeatedly bans anyone from entering or leaving the home. The pressure that his paranoia puts on the family reaches fever pitch and ultimately boils over into tragedy. Unlike the Mennyms, there is no despot telling me that I cannot go here or there. I am obeying the advice because I want to be a responsible citizen. But still, there’s something about that feeling of isolation and loss of control – like a child, I feel like it’s not fair and I should not be having to do this. It’s another book that I haven’t read for about twenty years but it really resonates.

If I’m honest though, the only true recommendation for reading that I would give for anyone right now is Rodney Castleden’s The Attack on Troy. I asked for a review copy because I’ve been doing a lot of reading around Greek Mythology. The book is extremely well-researched and very informative, I have definite gained new insight into the archaeology and history around the Trojan conflict. But oh my goodness, it was a dense read. During a period when my mind has been racing, The Attack on Troy has done an absolutely stellar job on switching my brain off and sending me off to sleep. And now I feel guilty for saying that Castleden’s incredibly thorough book is essentially an insomnia cure. But the point is that it has been the right book for me at the right time and I am grateful as well as being more informed about the Trojan war. For anyone seeking solace in these unreal times, look no further.

The older I get, the more I realise that I process my experiences through stories. No matter what is going on in my life, I find I can manage it better if I can think of a fictional (or even a real-life) person who has been through something similar. Going through post-natal depression, I read a lot of books about the experience of motherhood (Anna KareninaThe Hand that First Held Mine, the list goes on). Even now, I am trying to find a book that sums up what it feels like to look out upon a sunny day and know that while our world looks just the same as ever, there is an invisible enemy outside. I stay at home with my son. We read his books, we play with his Play-Doh, we bake biscuits, we play in the garden. We no longer visit his friend who lives just round the corner, we rarely venture past the garden gate. There are books that describe aspects of what we’re going through but none of them quite match up to that mixture of terror and tedium.

As I make my way through the coming days, I think I’m looking for comfort reads, in whatever form these can be found. But even these can pack in a surprise. Recently, I read Fierce Bad Rabbits which chronicles the history of various classic children’s picture books. What was surprising was that so many of these celebrated stories had such tragic back stories. I’ll never look at The Very Hungry Caterpillar in the same way again, certainly not now I know that the caterpillar’s stomachache is a source of eternal regret to its author. I looked at my son’s smiley face as we read his bedtime story and I felt that the world was far too full of things that could bring him harm. But if all these authors and artists could overcome their personal trials and produce beautiful art that brings millions of children joy over decades, we will find the sunshine again too and wherever we find it, we will dance.

I will be carrying on reading because it is almost all I know how to do in a crisis. I am the Girl with her Head in a Book. I read for comfort, I read for enjoyment and I read because it’s how I understand the world. I don’t know what the future holds. I just want to keep my little family safe. I send you all good wishes and peaceful thoughts. Let’s all stay home.

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16 thoughts on “Discussion: Reading Fiction in Unreal Times

  1. My grocery store is so sad! There’s no meat, no baking supplies, no pasta or rice, no cleaning supplies. I’m eating lots of frozen dinners. I’ve never heard of Fierce Bad Rabbits, but now I want to read it. My niece loves the Hungry Caterpillar.

    1. Fierce Bad Rabbits is definitely worth a read! It opened my eyes to so much!

      I hope your shops are recovering slightly – we even managed to find flour last night! We are slowly adjusting to the new normal but I really want my old life back – escaping to a good book is definitely the way to go at the moment …

  2. What lovely recommendations. I keep thinking of Station Eleven too. That airplane …

    If I need something to send me to sleep, I’ll be sure to pick up The Attack on Troy! Fierce Bad Rabbits sounds intriguing. I love your statement, “But if all these authors and artists could overcome their personal trials and produce beautiful art that brings millions of children joy over decades, we will find the sunshine again too and wherever we find it, we will dance.”

    Have fun with your little one, and read on.

    1. Ah yes, the airplane – I remember how Clark tried not to think of what had actually happened within it – it’s so clever how Emily St Mandel lets us fill in the gaps for ourselves. Shudder.

      Thank you for your message – I always love hearing from you. I hope you and your family are safe & well – sending you the very best of thoughts.

  3. Oh it is truly such a stressful time, and I’m glad that you’re taking every precaution and keeping safe. My sister and I have talked about how awful we feel for her son, who’s only little and is having SUCH a weird childhood, the poor little bean. (He seems perfectly chipper about it, all things considered.)

    1. The little people really are very resilient – after the first week, the Astronaut has been very gracious about the whole business. He’s also started giving us hugs. In and among we’re having nice family times, we’re playing together and we’re watching him grow. Spring is here, the flowers are beautiful and it’s finally warm – it all looks so perfect and yet we all have to remember that the threat could be anywhere. I hope you and all your family stay safe Jenny – it’s always wonderful hearing from you, these internet connections mean more than ever! Take good care x

  4. Life has become so sureal hasn’t it? Thank goodness for fiction, it has become one of the few certainties in life now–Ironic really. Thanks for mputing a smile on my face re your experience with an Atack on Troy, I’ll bear it in mind for the next time I can’t sleep. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family at this time. Keep well and safe.

    1. Sending the best of thoughts to you too – I’m struggling a bit to keep up the website because I don’t have childcare any more and I’m just doing my job when my son’s asleep. This is doable but is quite tiring. We are all safe and ok – we are playing in our garden a lot and keeping pretty busy. The weather has been lovely and we are enjoying the sunshine – it would have been a lovely weekend if only we didn’t have to worry about what lies ahead. I hope you’re looking after yourself – internet connections are so important at a time like this!

  5. I’m buying books, but second guessing each purchase as I don’t want to overburden the postal workers or give booksellers extra, risky trips to the post office. I know independents need the sales more than ever but, still I care about them.

    1. I’m lucky that I have a lot of books on my TBR pile so that hasn’t been as much of an issue for me about acquiring more but I do know what you mean. I feel like online ordering is the only thing that’s going to keep some places afloat but … the risk. And then having to disinfect everything that arrives. It’s not an easy one though as you do need something to keep yourself sane. I guess it’s just a calculated risk?

  6. Oh doll ❤️ sending you virtual safe elbow-bumps from the other side of the world. I’m definitely reading for escape and for comfort at the moment – anything that will raise a chuckle and keep the bad news bears at bay. I am taking great delight, though, in seeing just how many people are turning to books and reading as a way to cope, using this time as an opportunity to re-discover their love of literature. From now on, whenever I encounter someone who says that “reading is boring” or “print is dead”, I’m going to remind them of this terrible time when everyone reached for books.

    1. Sending safe elbow-bumps back to you too!
      It’s really interesting how people turn to books in times of stress – I studied a module at university about the 1940s and there was a big upsurge in reading then too. Times of stress, people need to escape. It is a definite plus – thank you for pointing that out!
      I hope you and all of yours are safe and have everything you need – it’s always lovely hearing from you, internet connections really do make a difference in this stressful time 🙂 x

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