In these difficult, uncertain times, we’re turning to books for consolation, comfort and creative inspiration. Here are our writers’ suggestions for reading during self-isolation.
As every email, message and news report has declared in the last few weeks, we are living in ‘unprecedented times’; where life as we knew it is being radically reshaped before our very eyes and even small civil liberties we once took for granted, are now denied to us. But one thing remains the same, irrespective of social isolation and distancing measures: our ability to tell and share stories. We at Lucy Writers believe that stories and the act of storytelling have the power to break boundaries, heal divisions and draw affinities between disparate groups of people who usually don’t see eye to eye. Stories have the power to reach into our long-held hurts and fears and show us a way through. Our regular contributors wanted to come together, therefore, and share some of the stories that have meant something to them in times of difficulty and hope; stories that they believe will bring comfort, joy, humour, colour and emotion into the lives of our readers in the coming months during Covid-19; books that have the capacity to enlarge our inner worlds when our outer ones feel like they are closing in on us. We hope you take comfort and inspiration from our list below.
The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge (Lion Children’s Books)
I gave some thought as to which book to put forward for this list. In periods of anxiety and hardship do people want to read something that tells of good triumphing over bad? Do they want escapism, a world that feels far removed from this one? Do they want a book that comforts, or one which provides hope? There are books I could recommend in each of those categories, but how about a book that provides all of those things? The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge is a children’s novel which tells the story of newly orphaned Maria who moves from London with her governess to live with her cousin in a grand manor house in the countryside by the sea. What follows is a wonderful fairytale-like story of past wrongs being righted, old loves reunited, and wicked people being redeemed. All of this is wrapped up in Goudge’s exquisite renderings of characters, interiors and the natural world, and punctuated with lavish descriptions of the food being eaten (which J.K. Rowling cites among the inspiration for the Hogwarts’ feasts). It is a bit outdated in parts, with too much veneration of supposed feminine virtues, and some Narnia-esque religious undertones that I have never much cared for. But it was published in 1946, and is set in 1842, and is such a charming book in all other ways that I forgive it these things. Refreshing my memories of the book, I stumbled on a rather fitting Goudge quote: “In times of storm and tempest, of indecision and desolation, a book already known and loved makes better reading than something new and untried … nothing is so warming and companionable”. The Little White Horse was a childhood favourite, and I’m bringing it out again now as one of my books in exactly that ‘known and loved’ category. With weeks or even months of bountiful reading time ahead, you may just find it becomes one of yours.
His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman (Scholastic)
In difficult times, I would always turn to fantasy. Not because fantasy is an escape from the real world, but because it gives you an alternate world to help better understand our own. And my particular recommendation – assuming you’ve already progressed through your annual re-read of Harry Potter – is Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. A distinctive heroine, other worlds, science, religion, magic, a war to save the world and a love story – this trilogy is perfect for anyone at any age. Plus, it is deep. Delve into the ideas of Blake and Milton if that’s your thing, or simply enjoy the ride. Journeying through such books makes us stronger and better adapted to dealing with our own circumstances as they become ever more extraordinary. Then once you’ve finished reading the trilogy, there is the lovingly created HBO TV adaptation currently on BBC iPlayer.
North Child by Edith Pattou (Usborne)
North Child swept into the YA fantasy world way back in 2003 (when it was published as East). It is an epic, vivid retelling of the Norwegian folk tale ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon’, with a hefty dash of Beauty and the Beast and a few sprinklings of Narnia thrown in. Rose, the young protagonist, is a North born child, destined to wander and roam far from home. Her superstitious mother, however, terrified of the fate that might befall her daughter, has always told her that she is an East child and that East children are docile, content with hearth and home. Naturally adventurous and yet wanting, as all children do, to please her mother, we see the very relatable conflict within Rose from the start: how can you be yourself when those closest want you to be something different? When an enormous white bear arrives at the family farm, asking for Rose to go with him in exchange for the returned health of her ailing sister and a reversal of the family’s declining fortunes, she can no longer ignore her wild nature. She agrees to go, and so begins a remarkable quest that changes Rose’s life forever. North Child won numerous awards when it was first published; these were well-deserved, and not only because of the rich, vivid storytelling and the perfect escapist combination of myth, fairytale and love story. In Rose, Pattou has created a truly remarkable heroine – headstrong, brave, intelligent, but certainly not perfect – whose mistakes and triumphs resonate strongly. We all have little bits of Rose in us! And that gives the book its uniqueness. We can be transported far, far away to an icy land of troll queens and bears and yet feel remarkably comforted at the same time, held in the safe arms of a master storyteller, knowing that Rose – and those parts of us we see in her – will somehow have a happy ending.
The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke (Scholastic)
In a time when the Piazza San Marco is deserted and the canals undisturbed, why not travel to Venice by the means of a book? It doesn’t even need the magic floating around the misty alleyways and crumbling canals of the Italian town in Cornelia Funke’s The Thief Lord (2000) to transport you into the City of Masks – her wonderful prose alone suffices, although some magic never hurts. Funke has established herself as one of Germany’s most popular children’s authors on a national and international level. Her stories ooze with originality and charm, clever plots and twists, and characters that are at once flawed, bratty, and mischievous, but always in an amiable way. The Thief Lord is no different. It tells the story of two orphaned brothers, Prosper and Bo, who make their way to Venice to flee from their aunt and uncle who seek to only adopt the younger brother, and thus, separate them. They are taken in by a group of street children who occupy an abandoned cinema, led by the mysterious Scipio who has made himself a name as the Thief Lord. Soon, the group are in the middle of an adventure when they are asked to steal a magical artefact for a rich client, questioning their own morality and mortality while crossing above and underneath the bridges in search of the artefact – and a place they can call home again. Although I’ve never been to Venice myself, Funke’s descriptions have allowed me to visit it several times already; she lets us discover well-known, popular places as well as oblique ones. Particularly interesting for me as a children’s literature scholar are the ways in which the novel questions the status of childhood and adulthood, with children longing to grow up and adults wishing they were young again: “Children are caterpillars and adults are butterflies. No butterfly ever remembers what it felt like being a caterpillar,” writes Funke in her novel. Whether you want to return to a, in my case at least, childhood favourite or dive into a genre you thought you’d left behind long ago, I believe that many elements in The Thief Lord appeal to audiences of all ages: who doesn’t love an adventurous novel with supernatural elements? One that lets you explore other parts of the world, while drawing upon the element of friendship and finding family in unlikely places.
Chosen by our writer Carla Plieth.
Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton)
As someone who specialised in science fiction at university I don’t mean it lightly when I say this book reaches peak potential of the science fiction genre. The story follows a spaceship crew on a particularly long mission to create inter-galactic wormhole highways, which results in them facing many dangerous situations – but really, all of that is the subplot. The novel primarily concerns itself with the relationships of the characters, who are all different species from different planets across the Galactic Commons (kind of like an inter-planetary EU). In the confined space of the Wayfarer the travelers are repeatedly confronted with their companions’ entirely distinct cultures, priorities, and identities, and we see the conflicts, compromises, and companionships that arise from that. Many people therefore describe this book as domestic sci-fi, but don’t equate that with boring. All sci-fi stories ask a question of ‘what if?’ and The Wayfarers trilogy asks some of the most important ones of our time – what if diversity was embraced? What if we understood other ways of life? What if the world was built to accommodate everyone? And what if this was all happening between aliens in space? Chambers utilises sci-fi’s potential for alienating our world perceptions, academically coined as cognitive estrangement by Darko Suvin, in order to question our core values. But unlike the H. G. Wells and K. Dicks of the past, she uses it to show that the differences we often fear – gender, sexuality, world view, faith, ability – are beautiful. This was a book where I cried at the end simply because it was the end, so I couldn’t possibly recommend any other book with which to be self-isolated.
‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’ by Ursula K. Le Guin
It is the day of summer solstice and a grand celebration is taking place in Omelas. Bells are chiming, people are dancing, and a sense of euphoria has spread around the city. This all-encompassing, joyous sensation is one that the citizens of this town are well acquainted with. In fact, in this fairy-tale-like place, no pain or sadness can ever be felt. Omelas is a utopic city of eternal happiness. Yet, all the citizens know that in order for their bliss to be perpetuated, a steep price must be paid. Deep inside a dark and wretched basement, an innocent child is imprisoned and left to suffer. An agreement has been struck that allows for the wailing cries and unbearable loneliness of this poor soul to be exchanged for every other resident’s happiness.
In this haunting story, a major utilitarian argument is outlined and questioned. Can the suffering of the few be decreed and justified if it ensures the salvation of the many? Le Guin also subtly parallels the despairing child’s fate with the trope of the “tortured artist”. Personally, whenever I read this tale, I’m reminded of the allegory of the artist and the brazen bull. Willingly, the former will enter the torture device and slowly burn, while the audience will gladly and greedily warm its hands by the rising flames. Of course, in the case of the city of Omelas, the suffering child did not volunteer to be subjected to the torture. Still, if it knew how many souls would be consequently comforted by its misery, it would perhaps accede to drown in the sadness and searing pain.
Finally, as the readers become entangled in the story, they are forced to consider the author’s indirectly posed question: If you were a resident of this idyllic, jubilant town, would you walk away from Omelas?
The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
I expect I would have found The Catcher in the Rye for myself eventually, but as a young teenager, it was Winona Ryder’s recommendation in the 1990s girls’ magazine Just Seventeen that intrigued me. Ryder described J. D. Salinger’s novel as her “bible” that she carried everywhere. This superlative declaration from one of my favourite actors was enough for me: I read it and loved it. I would go on to read other books that people recommended, but this one has stood the test of time – I reread it two years ago in an airport, grinning because I’d forgotten how funny it was, feeling pangs in my stomach because Holden Caulfield’s grief resonated more for me now I was older and had also lost people my age.
The Catcher in the Rye feels as postwar Americana as Rebel Without a Cause. Holden is a loyal brother: he quietly grieves for his late brother Allie whose baseball glove covered in handwritten poetry soothes him; he wants to live with his older brother D.B. who is a screenwriter, and his younger sister Phoebe admires him so much she’s prepared to run away with him. He is also an everyloser: a fairly well-behaved teenager who is expelled from college, he tries to make conversation with people but only aggravates them, and his attempt at a courteous liaison with a prostitute ends with a nasty encounter with her pimp. The power of a book like this is its ability to connect with readers whose own teenage years were wildly different from Holden’s. Holden is wealthier than most teenagers, he is an American boy in the late 1940s who wants to be a man, he has a very distinctive voice which would be almost be funny if it wasn’t so affable, trusting and familiar. Just as he desperately wants to connect with some of the people he meets, he also wants to bond with the reader, trusting that we are not – as so many people he encounters are – “phoneys”. His hopes, disappointments, and his teenage view of the world, are sad but hopeful, comforting and grounding.
Cygnet by Season Butler (Dialogue Books)
At the launch of her debut novel, Season Butler described Cygnet as a ‘love letter to young black women around the world; to their intelligence, ingenuity, strength and beauty.’ This couldn’t be more true. The ‘kid’ (Butler’s nameless though very present and robust protagonist) has been left on a separatist island to stay with her grandma whilst her struggling, drug-addicted parents find somewhere to live on the US mainland. Swan Island may seem like a breath of fresh sea air compared to the dirty smoke-choked rooms the kid remembers occupying with her parents, but its inhabitants – a group of ageing retirees who have pledged to keep their small bit of land a juvenile-free-zone – are far from welcoming. One loss leads to another and the kid is left to fend for herself in a house situated perilously close to a crumbling cliff edge. But what could just be a beautifully written tale of trauma in the face of isolation, abandonment, and rejection, becomes one of resilience (age-old resilience in one searingly beautiful memory of past ancestors and their methods of survival) and the fighting desire to survive, live and not be swept away by the currents of grief. Like the kid, Cygnet came quietly, though forcefully into our midsts last year, receiving acclaimed reviews and esteemed by revered writers left, right and centre. But it’s the courageous, rebellious, vulnerable, pained, quick-fire intelligent voice of the kid that has stayed with me, telling my inner teen who still sometimes teeters on the brink of difficulties, ‘you can do it, you can go on. Come on, you owe it to yourself and no one else.’ Butler’s writing is unlike anything I’ve ever read; it positions intergenerational relationships, trauma and the heroism of young people (Thunberg and Malala anyone?) at the forefront of the narrative, but also at the forefront of our quest to overturn the ills of past and current adult generations (political, environmental, social). If this is the kind of bold debut to set sail in the rough waters of the world, I have hope for whatever we, like the kid, face now and next.
Recommendations from our favourite lit lovers in publishing, award-winning author Irenosen Okojie:
Sassafras, Cypress & Indigo by Ntozake Shange. It’s a kaleidoscopic evocation of 1920s Charleston, South Caroline. This stunning book is an ode to blackness, form and the feminist spirit. Full of Soulful characters that breathe beyond the page. (Read about & purchase Shange’s novel here).
I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farell. An astonishing, visceral incandescent memoir charting O’Farrell’s seventeen near-death encounters over a life well lived. Not only is it one of my favourite books, but it’s unlike anything I’ve ever read. Profound, unsettling, life affirming.
Strange Hotel by Eimear McBride (Faber)
Having not read either of Eimear McBride’s previous prize-winning novels (a terrible confession which I probably shouldn’t make!) I was intrigued by the blurb of Strange Hotel. A woman, wandering from hotel room to hotel room, choosing to inhabit that limbo of travel where no one knows your name and identity is all but lost; where one city begins to look very much like another; where memories can be negotiated and the future can be bargained with because nothing seems real anyway. In this unstable, ‘smoke-and-mirrors’ world, McBride’s protagonist is a mystery. Snippets of her story are revealed tantalisingly throughout the book – a family life, a failed relationship – but there is a sense that her past is not so important. What matters in the narrative is where she is now. Nameless sexual encounters, one after the other, are interspersed with the paralysing circular thoughts that occupy her constantly. Grief plays a big part, and yet this is a grief which is somehow liberated. McBride’s woman is no stereotypical grieving widow, but engages in casual sex as a distraction – a distraction which is still seen very much as a male preserve – and the maddening, playful twists and turns of her language give the reader the impression that she may or may not be telling the full story. There is no conventional scaffolding here for the reader, no social or cultural markers to tag the woman with. It’s both frustrating and remarkably liberating. Does even she know who she is, and does it matter? What constitutes identity anyway? McBride doesn’t answer these questions. That’s our job. Strange Hotel left me confused, questioning, and feeling strangely alive – a more challenging read, but one that’s definitely worth it.
Little by Edward Carey (Gallic Books)
If you enjoyed Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind (2006), you will find this well crafted work of biographical historical fiction equally as absorbing, its historical accuracy embedded with a light touch. Though always on the look-out, I never caught the author out with obvious anachronisms. His delicate illustrative drawings serve to intensify and concentrate the reader’s attention to detail in this unlikely page-turner. Anne Marie Grosholz, better known to us as Madame Tussaud, was born in Alsace in 1761. But her life in London as a successful maker of waxworks is a mere four page concluding chapter in the book. Instead, Carey chronicles the bizarre and unlikely course of her life and observes the eccentricities of both real and fictional characters with wit and compassion. Anne Marie, nicknamed ‘Little’, is born with every disadvantage of poverty and is orphaned by her mother’s suicide. She works as an assistant to a maker of anatomical models used for teaching surgeons at Berne Hospital, before moving to Paris and becoming entangled in the chaotic revolutionary and early Napoleonic period there. A display of busts representing celebrated figures in a fast-changing political climate can have its own risks, and the fortunes of Little’s dysfunctional domestic circle are swept along by unpredictable forces. Resentment and spite but also unexpected tenderness and love weave through Little’s story. She survives the worst that life throws at her. The book will help you believe in the strength we all have to do the same.
Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn (Oneworld)
My favourite thing about Nicole Dennis-Benn‘s writing is its authenticity. Before knowing who the author is, you can tell her work is written by a Jamaican woman: somebody who has lived in Jamaica, someone who knows, intimately, Jamaican culture and Jamaican people.
With Here Comes the Sun the main women and the locations described felt like the people and places I already knew from my own life. With Patsy, I felt like I was being personally allowed to see the sides of these people that I wouldn’t normally be permitted to view or that your family wouldn’t necessarily talk about. Patsy challenges the societal expectations of womanhood and motherhood, and what happens when you subvert these expectations.
The vividness with which Nicole crafts her characters makes them real. Even though they are flawed and are not immediately or wholly likeable, you LOVE them, you feel for them and you feel like you truly know them by the end of the narrative. Beyond Patsy and Tru, who are perfectly painted, I loved the imagery used to portray the smaller characters: the Barringtons, the Duckys, even the Beatrices and the powerful ways their fleeting encounters with the protagonists impacted their lives made the story for me.
It’s unbelievably refreshing that we have someone who depicts us in a way that is immediately recognisable and beautiful and vibrant.
Recommendations from our favourite lit lovers in publishing, Millie Seaward, Senior Publicity Manager at Little, Brown:
Persuasion by Jane Austen – Whenever, there is uncertainty in the world (and lets be honest – that’s a lot of the time recently) I love to revisit something comforting. Persuasion is my favourite Jane Austen novel – there is something wonderful in knowing that even through the darkest times, everything will turn out all right in the end!
Rainbow Milk by Paul Mendez (Dialogue Books) not out till April (but who knows we might all still be inside by then!). A truly powerful and radical auto-fictional novel by a new author to watch! It’s available on Netgalley here if you would like to request to download, plus many other titles to get you through!
Chaos by James Gleick (Viking Press)
In a fit of projected productivity, I left all reading material at home this holiday. Staying in a cabin in the remote north of Sweden, spending days outdoors and nights inside with no internet and a laptop full of notes – as I reasoned to myself – how could I possibly avoid getting some work done? My partner was bringing nothing but his sketchbook and yet another dry, math-filled physics treatise. On day four, seized by the desire to read in the quiet snowy landscape and early morning sun, I realised how utterly wrong I had been. Chaos by James Gleick is a breathtaking journey through some of the most remarkable insights of the 20th century. It explores the unpredictable patterns and principles underlying everything from the weather, to a cooling cup of coffee, to the booms and busts of global economies. It is also a love letter to cooperation and inter-disciplinary working, tracing the discoveries of thinkers who refused to stay inside the prescribed boundaries of their disciplines, and in the process stumbled upon remarkable new truths. Gleick has style, compassion and wit, and explains theories I had long given up on understanding with illuminating clarity and patience; it is unsurprising that Chaos was nominated for a Pulitzer prize when it was published in 1987. There are also plenty of human stories behind these great leaps in collective thinking, and the vanities and idiosyncrasies of these deep thinkers make them compelling subjects. Chaos encourages its readers to think, as with fractals, on many scales at once, and provides a welcome sense of perspective during these uncertain times. Whether or not you’re self-isolating or social-distancing this month, I’d thoroughly recommend this excellent book. And the work? It can probably wait until you’ve finished.
War in Val d’orcin: An Italian War Diary 1943-44 by Iris Origo (Pushkin Press)
In the 1920s Iris Origo, an Anglo-American and her aristocratic husband, Antonio Origo, Marchese di Val d’Orcia, acquired a bleak, destitute estate in southern Tuscany. They worked hard to build and modernise the 50+ tenant farms and land which they turned into a thriving self-sufficient estate to include not just the villa and its garden but the whole estate with a community of farms and the people who worked on it.
During WW2, Italy endured invasion by German armies, civil war and the eventual arrival of the Allies. La Foce was at the centre of the German’s last stand – hardened veterans of the failed Russian and North African campaigns were sent from the north to salvage the Third Reich’s reputation and met with the Allies on their march from the south. It took over a year for the Allies to reach Rome from Naples.
During this time of great uncertainty Iris Origo kept a record of daily life and of what happened when a peaceful farming valley became a vicious battleground. On the estate, at great personal risk, the Origos and their tenants gave food, shelter and sanctuary to partisans, escapees, deserters and refugees. She writes with sensitivity and generosity and a story emerges of human acts of heroism and compassion emerging from the devastation that war can bring.
Women Mystics In Medieval Europe by Emilie Zum Brunn and Georgette Epiney-Burgard; and the writing of Elizabeth David, Jane Gardam and Margaret Drabble
Women Mystics In Medieval Europe by Emilie Zum Brunn and Georgette Epiney-Burgard incorporates modern translations with fresh literary expression of Hildegard of Bingen, Hadewijch of Antwerp, Beatrice of Nazareth, Mechthild of Magdeburg, and Marguerite Porete, alongside poetic theological analysis of key ideas in their works. Reflections pertinent to Covid-19 isolation include Mechthild’s ‘The Desert Has Twelve Things’, where she writes: “You must love no-thingness, / You must flee something, / You must remain alone / And go to nobody.”.
For the purposes of indulgent escapism, Elizabeth David’s writing, despite its sometimes-alienating upper-class moments, offers sensuous food stories. I recommend An Omelette and a Glass of Wine to help you project an idealised image of yourself enjoying fresh food alfresco post-lockdown, and perhaps also to revitalise the joy of cooking at home amidst the current situation: “…a bunch of sweet basil, the kind with big fleshy floppy leaves, fills the kitchen with a violently rich spice smell as it is pounded up with Parmesan, garlic, olive oil and walnuts’.
Jane Gardam’s short stories are always a perfect balance of comedy and pathos. Her collection Missing the Midnight includes alluring and strange tales of a couple returning home from a cruise with their doppelgängers; a boy who turns into a bike, and the Green Man whose daughters fuss around him while his sons arrive only to check on his estate before he dies, and swiftly “scatter in their sharp suits, clutching their mobile phones.”
Chosen by our writer Gwen Dupré. See more of Gwen’s work via Instagram @gwenrcd
Recommendations from our favourite lit lovers in publishing, Marie-Louise Patton, Faber Communications:
The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist by Adrian Tomine. This laugh-out-loud, graphic novel memoir is Tomines’ first book since 2015. It’s so worth the wait and the perfect antidote to these hard times, full of hope and hilarity.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Otessa Moshfegh. I read this book early on in the year and catch myself thinking about it often. Absorbing and clever, a story unlike any other. Completely brilliant and a must-read for our impending isolations.
The short story has always been close to my heart, not least because the first writer to fuel my love of reading as a teen (the inimitable James Baldwin – see my coda to this listicle) wrote powerfully in this form, transforming my attitude to what words, books and reading could do. Since then I have laughed, cried, marvelled and been taken to new imaginative heights by writers known to shape the most exquisite worlds in the short story form. Whilst university courses will be quick to hand you a list of short story masters (the Joyces, Hemingways, Fitzgeralds and other such moderns), it’s the mistresses who are innovating the form and proving its extreme excellence. Taking the baton from past short story mistresses – the Woolfs, Mansfields, Carringtons, Neale-Hurstons, Petrys, Jacksons, Allendes, Byatts, Carters (etc.) of the twentieth-century – are fantastic writers like Jenny Zhang, Carmen Maria Machado, Miranda July and many others. Here are three writers who, for me, demonstrate that short stories are second to none in any authorial line-up or book pile: Irenosen Okojie, Yukiko Motoya and Annabel Banks.
Nudibranch by Irenosen Okojie (Dialogue Books)
Reading an Irenosen Okojie story is to not only see through a kaleidoscope but to live in one. In her dazzling second collection, Nudibranch – a mighty follow-up to the equally impressive Speak Gigantular – the laws that govern time and space contort and collapse into new realms and ways of being; bodies morph, contract into past ones, and shed skins as naturally as any serpentine creature; and the supposed ‘rules’ of the short story form at once click in and then dramatically and liberatingly out of place. Okojie’s prose is colourful and poetic, illuminating the surreal, the strange and the seductively sinister beneath the dry surface of ‘ordinary’ life. In ‘Kookaburra Sweet’, a young woman, exhausted with life and the trying journey from Australia to the UK, consumes a copious amount of liquorice given to her by a stranger at the airport. Upon waking in her London-based flat, a dark oily stain has coated her bed; the effects of the liquorice, much like the story, are at once dizzyingly and devastatingly brilliant. In ‘Filamo’, silent time-travelling monks attempt to hold their crumbling monastery and mode of life together, whilst a mysterious “brother” bumps them off, one by one, gurgling tongue in hand. And, in ‘Grace Jones’ an impersonator battles with the traumatic flames and unextinguished losses of the past – perhaps hinting that even glorious giantesses like Grace have the breaks and gnashes many of us hold in our hearts. The titular story, ‘Nudibranch’, about a lonely lovelorn goddess searching for a heart to call – and sate – her own, exemplifies what many of the tales are concerned with: the small and larger transmogrifications of individuals, the fragmentary and unstable nature of human existence and material reality; the simple longings (to belong, to be loved, to be touched, to be free) of supposedly complex individuals; the loneliness that comes from past trauma, trauma that plays out well into the present often in nightmarish shapes. Well after finishing this collection, I still have it on my desk. Why? Because Okojie’s work pushes for the kind of literary freedom I can only dream of; because the shifting blue cover radiates the powerful light of the imagination within; because her stories, for all their carefully encoded logic, fantastically break through the invisible walls of the page and mind to offer us something glowingly wondrous and wonderfully alive.
Picnic in the Storm by Yukiko Motoya (Corsair)
The introduction to the English translation of Yukiko Motoya’s Picnic in the Storm gives an extended quotation by Nobel Laureate Kenzaburo Oe. Oe questions whether Motoya’s collection should be deemed ‘real literature’, as opposed to the thing of ‘quality entertainment’ he believes it to be. Without going into Oe’s response (yes, he eventually concedes, Motoya’s collection very much deserves to be considered a literary great), his introduction betrays exactly what is wrong with establishment attitudes not only towards the short story form, but the short story form in the hands of women. Motoya’s stories, written with the kind of precision that would make most male moderns of the twentieth-century envious, often focus on the frustrations and limitations of married life and heterosexual relationships (another reason why such stories are easily dismissed by critics). But these are certainly not to be classified as “dreary” yarns of domestic life. Motoya’s narrators – mostly, but not always, women – cast a wise and at times wry eye on marital life. In ‘An Exotic Marriage’, an award-winning, near novella-length story, San relates her life with her indifferent overgrown man-baby of a husband. Coming home from work, San’s husband switches off for hours on end to watch television, drink highballs and ignore his wife’s every word. Continually joking about how San allows him to be who he is – ‘you’re so easy to be with, San’ – and put up with everything – ‘even eating my poop’ – San starts to realise she is morphing into her husband. Stunningly structured – Motoya weaves several other couples from two different generations into the mix, as well as the abandonment of a cat on a mountaintop (don’t question, just read it!) – ‘An Exotic Marriage’ explores one woman’s growing realisation of the extent to which she accommodates a partner’s needs, whims and irresponsible actions to the detriment of herself. Sinister the symbiosis (or rather parasitism) of their relationship may be, freedom and autonomy does not allude San, and the end of this story will have you cheering her on. Expect macabre encounters in dressing rooms, flying businessmen, the triumphalism of the body building wife, ice-skating dogs and girlfriends sprouting killer high heels and vixen red lips in a hilarious satire of heterosexual male desire and the battle of the sexes. Feast on Motoya’s literary Picnic during the Covid-19 storm.
Exercises in Control by Annabel Banks (Influx Press)
Annabel Banks is a fierce new talent on the literary – yep, not just entertainment here either – landscape. Following hot off the heels of her Pushcart nominated poetry collection, DTR (Broken Sleep Books), Exercises in Control (Influx Press) is a thrillingly smart and sexy fictional debut that takes full advantage of its title term: control. Some characters play dangerous games to exert control over individuals; others delight in being dominated over. Control in all its weird, kinky, delusional and deadly forms is on display here in prose both uncontrollably hilarious and sharp. In the titular story, ‘Exercises in Control’, (a masterclass of timing, structure and symbolism), a station attendant plays a dark and deadly game of heads-or-tails, quietly watching a young woman from behind the platform gap. Controlling tendencies and compulsions take a turn for the ludic and sublimely ridiculous in ‘Rite of Passage’, where a romantic beach date is sabotaged by a rock pile beneath a cliff. And in ‘Free Body Diagram’ a woman seeks out strange and potentially dangerous encounters with random men between dates. But it’s not just the human need to hold tight or let go of the reins of destiny that is on show here. Banks intelligently introduces elements of myth, legend and literary types – Shaws’ Pygmalion or Eliza Doolittle; Tennyson’s Mariana from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure to name a few – in her stories, only to position them alongside ideas and theories from science (Newton gets a significant mention in a superb story about a synaesthete and a scientist). The result is a multi-layered, polyvalent collection of stories that build on and speak to each other from afar. This is the start of more smoothly delivered and coolly conceived storytelling from Banks, and I, for one, am here for the next collection.
Recommendations from our favourite lit lovers in publishing, Dialogue Books Publisher & Founder Sharmaine Lovegrove:
I remember being given a piece of paper with a list of books I should read before starting university. I remember looking with awe at the red handwriting hastily scrawled on the page. I was eager to know what the magic words, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chaucer, Joyce and other such names, would reveal. What worlds in colour and force, and well away from my dull one, would become apparent and available to me? Despite taping the paper to a wall opposite my bed and whispering the talismanic names to myself at night – as if some age old charm had been caught in their lofty letters – I didn’t end up reading most of the authors listed. The literary magic that actually swept through my life did not, much to the dismay of my then teacher and perhaps those reading this, pour out from the works of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chaucer or Joyce.
That summer, despite the calling codes echoing from my bedroom, I discovered James Baldwin in my local library. Initially it was the cover – some crisp Penguin design with a pale mint green tint and a black and white photograph I can no longer bring to mind – that made me pick the book up. What kept me reading was the raw emotion cased and then cracked open in the most perfectly controlled prose; a prose only possible by someone who had lived, breathed and sublimated pain and desire into his own unique language. Reading these stories as a teen shrank me down to a child again: Baldwin’s young protagonists, though small in size, were mighty in their perception of a world fraught with tensions; a world ripe with possibility, but only available to some to pluck and taste the fruits. Vulnerable though they are, Baldwin’s children are aware of the desire brewing within themselves – as was Baldwin himself no doubt, desire for words, touch, companionship, equality and justice ever at the forefront of his works. They look through new eyes at a world burning with desire too.
His short stories sing of a love for the streets of Harlem and church communities, despite the denial and restrictions of religion. They sing of a love for music itself – it is the intoxicating sounds, riffs and chords of gospel, spirituals and jazz, that pulse through stories like ‘The Outing’ or ‘Sonnie’s Blues’. Much like his novels and essays, Baldwin’s short stories also get under the tough skin of 1950s masculinity; the violence of heteronormativity and the emasculating consequences of systemic racism in America; how both are internalised and held painfully in the body – in bodies longing to be other – and then externalised prejudicially in communities, family relationships and the home. Baldwin’s stories, with their precise, taut, but emotionally imbued words opened myeyes to the small agonies and ecstasies of individuals around me; to how quick exchanges – an embrace, a word, a stare – turn into revealing and life-defining moments.
Baldwin is now widely acknowledged as one of the masters of American literature (though often denied that acknowledgement in the form of prizes and critical appraisals when alive). His novels, plays, essays and, of course, short stories are taught in schools, universities and included in European, American, African American and alternative literary canons (glorified lists might I add). But he was not included in that list given to me almost eighteen years ago, and I dread to think what leaden language may have replaced his illuminating, piercing words that summer; what books may have turned me away from reading, from literature, from writing and a love of all three.
Lists, trivial as they may seem, are still how we structure much of our day-to-day lives and the wider world. My advice to readers of our collaborative listicle is to, yes, seek out titles here – some of which have been ignored on the wider publishing longlists or school syllabi – but to also go beyond it, discover the unknown and unlisted greats; take them to your hearts, as I did Baldwin, because the result will be more than a crossing off of hastily scrawled names on a scrap of paper. The result will be a lifelong love for and awareness of what words can do; the result will be more transformative than magic.
Join Dialogue Books’ Virtual Book Club!
Join founder and publisher, Sharmaine Lovegrove, and author Yvonne Battle-Felton for the first ever Dialogue Book Lounge, a virtual book group broadcast live via IGTV.
Every week Sharmaine and her fantastic Dialogue Books authors will discuss their work and invite you to be part of the conversation. The first Dialogue Book Lounge will feature the award-winning author Yvonne Battle-Felton, who will talk about her acclaimed novel, Remembered, a book that has drawn comparisons with Toni Morrison for its searing exploration of a family haunted by the past horrors and traumas of slavery.
About Dialogue Books
Dialogue Books, spearheaded by publisher Sharmaine Lovegrove, is home to a variety of stories from illuminating voices often excluded from the mainstream.
Established first as an English-language bookshop in Berlin in 2008, and reignited as an imprint as part of Little, Brown in July 2017, Dialogue Books has built its foundations upon the idea that through storytelling a dialogue is created to engender a more inclusive, nuanced conversation about experiences in our world that come before, after and next.
Its first title was The Leavers, the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize Winner for Fiction, which was closely followed by The Old Slave and The Mastiff, written by the Prix Goncourt winner Patrick Chamoiseau. In 2018, the imprint officially launched with four exciting debuts – Brothers in Blood, XX, One More Chance and Cygnet – discussing myriad topics including but not limited to: Asian crime, lesbian parenting, female prisoners and disillusioned adolescence. Dialogue’s first title of 2019, Remembered, by Yvonne Battle-Felton has been longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the range of hard-hitting, political, cultural titles from this activist imprint has already engaged readers across our society.
Dialogue Books shines a spotlight on stories for, about and by readers from the LGBTQI+, disability, working class and BAME communities. The imprint has a clear focus of distinctive, cross-genre titles that spark a conversation across fiction, non-fiction, commercial and literary publishing.
Read about Les Éphémères’ 24hrs virtual gathering of 24 women!
To celebrate International Women’s Day, Les Ephémères’ held a belated virtual dinner party with 24 women writers, readers, translators and people from the book world. Incredible literary women from all over the globe such as Linda Mannheim, Rachel de Moravia, Haleh Agar and many more, were invited to share a literary post (a picture, video, extract, fragment of writing) and connect through their love of art.
The result was a brilliant cultural exchange and hive of connectivity at a time when we’re all coming to terms with social isolation and distancing. Bridging the disorientating and stressful disconnect with their impressions, insights, pictures, fragments of poetry and much more, these 24 women show what the power of words and a love of literature can do in this time of need.
Read the inspiring exchange here until 30th March only.
To find out more information about the texts selected above or to purchase them, click the links in the body of the article.
Feature image by Robert Anasch on Unsplash. Images of Season Butler and Irenosen Okojie, as well as the covers of their books, are courtesy of Dialogue Books, Little, Brown. Images of Eimear McBridge and her book are courtesy of Faber.