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 finally 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 Karenina, The 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.