I was on the beach in January when I first heard about COVID-19. My uncle made a stellar joke that the only cure for the coronavirus was a lime, and it would be another few days (after stumbling upon an article amid some mindless scrolling) that I realised it was an actual virus that existed and not a disease my uncle made up for the purposes of cracking a funny.
Like everyone I’m currently spending majority of time inside – occasionally attempting to get some form of work done, and investing more time than I’m proud of attempting to nail the lyric’s to Joe Exotic’s ‘I Saw A Tiger’.
Right now, the days all feel kind of meshed into one. It’s frightening and it’s uncertain but it’s also making me appreciate so many little things which would’ve barely crossed my mind as a thing to be appreciative of a few months ago. I’m incredibly lucky for the stability I do have and for the friendships and relationships I can rely on despite how notoriously crap I am with checking my phone and responding to messages.
Anyway, if you’re currently on the lookout for some reading material that’s relatable but is also a break from thinking about COVID-19, here are a few literary explorations of ongoing and mundane isolation.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation (Ottessa Moshfegh, 2018)
This was Moshfegh’s second novel, and personally I preferred her first book, Eileen, (which I’ve mentioned before) just because this is essentially about an unnamed narrator’s attempts to hibernate for an entire year [and I can always go back to living my own life if I wanna think about someone who takes a lot of day naps and only leaves the house at obscure times to do a coffee run – its greater meaning might’ve been lost on me]. But this book was the first time I found a new release in a Little Free Library so obviously I went for it.
Set in New York city between 2000 and 2001 pre-9/11, the young unnamed protagonist has lost both of her parents and this on top of being fired from her first job out of college, she chooses to put herself into a chemically induced hibernation for a year – hoping the extended rest will mean she’ll no longer feel tired all the time once it’s over.
Attempting to spend as much time as possible asleep, the only contact with the outside world the narrator has is, her incompetent psychiatrist who freely writes her prescriptions, and a best-friend she seems to secretly hate.
It’s an interesting enough concept, given everyone at one point wishes they could dedicate an extended period of time to sleep or skip over some months and wake up somewhere better.
The Memory Police (Yōko Ogawa, 1994)
Although this was originally published back in 1994, the English translation only came out last year. So for people like me who can’t speak Japanese, this is a 25-year-old new release; it reads like it could’ve been written now though, the story has a very timeless quality to it.
Set on an unnamed island – that happens to be detached from a larger unnamed island; the narrator in this one is also unnamed, and like the majority of her fellow islanders once the Memory Police (who dictate the island) choose to erase a particular object, animal, profession ect., all personal memories and feelings attached to that thing instantaneously disappear.
The secret minority who are capable of remembering, face persecution by the Memory Police, as do people who choose to keep or acknowledge forgotten objects; and due to boats being a forgotten object, locals have no remaining contact with life beyond the island.
The unnamed narrator is a writer whose editor is being targeted by the Memory for his ability to remember. With the help of an elderly man, who is her only close companion left, the narrator builds a secret space under her floorboards for her editor to hide from arrest.
Basically its a good book to read in isolation because it makes you appreciate that at least you’re not living in a sci-fi Orwellian reality where all the potential things that could’ve entertained you like books or Netflix aren’t suddenly going to disappear on you.
Wide Sargasso Sea (Jean Rhys, 1966)
So spoilers for anyone who hasn’t read Jane Eyre, but the main twist in that is Rochester – the suave brooding fellow Jane has a crush on/the master of Thornfield Hall/her boss – has kept his ‘lunatic’ first-wife, Bertha (who he was technically still married to), secretly locked away in the attic.
Hearing that juicy twist was the primary reason Jane Eyre was on my to-read list, and so naturally I was bitterly disappointed that, what is arguably the most interesting bit of the story, only has roughly six pages dedicated to it. Hence why I prefer Wide Sargasso Sea (plus it’s a significantly shorter read, so it gets extra points for fewer pages because I’m a lazy shit).
Wide Sargasso Sea is an imagined prequel to Jane Eyre told from Bertha’s perspective that makes you entirely rethink how much you can trust Rochester’s side of things in the original classic.
Elaborating on details about Bertha (or Antoinette Cosway as she’s known in Wide Sargasso Sea) which Jane Eyre briefly mentions; this story starts with Antoinette’s isolated youth in Jamaica, being raised on a dilapidated former sugar plantation by her widowed mother, Annette, who is struggling mentally in isolation and holds a growing resentment for Antoinette.
Here, Annette remarries Englishman, Mr. Mason – the man who eventually ‘cons’ Rochester into marrying Antoinette. The book details Rochester and Antoinette’s (whom he renames Bertha) brief honeymoon together to Dominica, his progressing hatred for his new wife and ultimately settling into Thornfield Hall while keeping Antoinette’s existence a secret.
Day of the Triffids (John Wyndham, 1951)
So bit of context for this fictional post-apocalyptic society: the triffids are these man-size plants that are capable of moving around and have a dangerous sting, and were just an everyday part of life in this society.
The main character, Bill Masen, was a ‘triffidologist’ before everything went to shit, who was recovering in hospital from being temporarily blinded by a triffid sting. The book begins with Bill feeling salty because he has a bandage over his eyes and everyone else is talking about how incredible and once-in-a-lifetime this meteor shower that’s happening right now is.
The next day, everyone who watched this mysterious meteor shower (so the bulk of mankind) has permanently gone blind, and now Bill’s frightened but also slightly smug and now the triffids suddenly harness the chance to do some evil bidding.
This book is a lot of survival, and the minority who do have sight attempting to create safe communities in the countryside while they wait for news or help from other countries which may never come. It’s an alright book, but be warned there’s like three pages in the middle where Wilfred mansplains why women are terrible and not helpful to the rebuilding effort – go fuck yourself Wilfred! Good luck repopulating by yourself there Wilfred!