Chloë Ashby offers her recommendations for the best books to read in isolation.
Books are a solace at the best of times, in a period of deep uncertainty they anchor us. There's comfort to be found in re-reading an old favourite, while immersing yourself in a new story can be nothing short of joyful. I'm lucky enough to have been able to decamp from London to the countryside, where I'm staying with my high-speed reader mum and my stepdad, a former book critic. Surrounded by someone else's literature, I find my fingers itching to turn the pages. From a modern classic to a collection of poems, here are my recommendations via their shelves for what to read while you're self-isolating.
Atonement by Ian McEwan
No doubt we've all seen the film adaptation, but have you read McEwan's 2001 novel? Atonement is one of those rare works of fiction that creates and maintains an entirely convincing sense of illusion. Divided into three parts, it starts at the Tallis family's country house in the summer of 1935, then plunges us into the British rout at Dunkirk, then shifts to wartime London. The story begins with the brainy but immature 13-year-old Briony watching her older sister Cecilia take off her clothes and plunge into a fountain in the garden; also watching her is Robbie Turner, a working-class friend who, like Cecilia, studied at Cambridge thanks to a generous loan from her father. By the end of that day the hottest day of the summer Cecilia and Robbie have crossed a line, and Briony has told a lie that will change all three of their lives forever. A clear-eyed and compassionate depiction of childhood, love and war that harks back to 20th-century literature while remaining resolutely modern.
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Woolf is one of the 20th-century novelists to whom McEwan is indebted. A giant of English literature, she asks big questions in her writing not least her fourth novel. Mrs. Dalloway takes place within the course of a single day in June 1923. The subject: Clarissa Dalloway, an upper-class wife of a Member of Parliament, who is preparing for a party she's hosting that evening. As she strolls around London, we learn that she has a troubled past and struggles like Woolf with depression. Meanwhile, a Great War veteran, Septimus Warren Smith, is suffering from shell shock and heading to an appointment with Clarissa's psychiatrist. As the day draws to an end, the pair's worlds collide. The stream of consciousness ends unresolved. “What is this terror?” writes Woolf. “What is this ecstasy?”
The Poems of Emily Dickinson edited by R.W. Franklin
It's pleasingly fitting to self-isolate with a book of poetry by Dickinson. After all, the 19th-century American poet spent most of her time in seclusion. Born in 1830 in Massachusetts, she rarely left the family home and according to locals was hardly ever seen. She spent her days in a room of her own, writing letters and poetry. Assembled by Ralph Franklin, a scholar of her manuscripts, this edition compiles 1,789 of her poems, most of which were circulated among family and friends and existed in more than one version. This is as close as we can get to a definitive volume, with the poems' original spelling, punctuation and capitalisation. Dip in and out of her wild and mysterious musings on nature, hope, love, mental health and death.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
Murakami's 1994 novel, which first appeared in English three years later, is considered by many readers to be his masterpiece. In the Japanese author's trademark style, it combines fairy tale and science fiction with a detective story. The protagonist is Toru Okada, who has recently left his job at a Tokyo law firm and is living out a somewhat vague suburban life when strange things start to happen. His cat goes missing, soon to be followed by his wife, and bizarre phone calls intrude. As the story unfolds, Toru is thrown into a series of odd adventures that introduce him to a cast of curiouser and curiouser characters. All the while, he occasionally hears the mechanical cry of a wind-up bird an ominous sign, we later learn. A puzzle-like novel that's complex and captivating.
Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion
Didion made her name as a journalist in the 1960s and since then she's written celebrated essay collections, novels and screenplays, as well as two poignant memoirs that deal with loss the first about the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and the second about her daughter, Quintana. If you have yet to read her work, Play It As It Lays her most successful novel is a good place to start. The story follows Maria Wyeth, a 31-year-old former actress and model who finds herself divorced from her film-maker husband, isolated from her friends, agonising over an abortion and ultimately descending into madness. A hypnotic book that's as cool and candid as it is introspective, and a razor-sharp look at American life in the Sixties in particular Los Angeles anomie.
How to be Both by Ali Smith
I hope Smith is scribbling away at this strange and unsettling moment in time, making sense of the madness, as she's known to do, in her playful and inventive prose. Her novels are hard to describe, in part because they're like nothing else. But what's easy to see is that they deal with real life. At a time when arts institutions around the world are grappling with how to survive the Covid-19 crisis, How to be Both an enchanting book about the versatility of art seems especially relevant. The novel is divided into two interlinked narratives, one dealing with a 15th-century Renaissance painter, the other a teenage girl of the 1960s. The narrative you begin with will depend on the copy you've chosen. The point? Multiplicity and, crucially, unpredictability is part of life.
Words & photographs by Chloë Ashby.