Every book ever written is about the pandemic — at least that’s what I’m discovering after trying to escape the here and now through fiction.
Honestly, I could read “Dick and Jane Go to School” and I would be thinking, not so fast, kids. Where are your masks? Everything we do, everything we read, every plan for the future is now viewed through the prism of the ongoing health crisis. But that’s OK. We always bring our own lives to the first page of a new book.
Reading is a diversion, but alas, it is not an escape.
I read four books this month, which I chose specifically because I hoped to get away from the grind of the daily news and from other books featuring pandemics, natural disasters, environmental catastrophes and family trauma. Ultimately, my choices did not offer escape from the moment, but they did offer comfort, and the knowledge that painful life challenges are part of the human condition.
Because my attention span is a casualty of pandemic anxiety, I selected relatively short books. I want to read Jonathan Franzen’s “Crossroads,” for example, but I’m not yet up for a nearly 600-page read.
My first choice was “Midnight in the Library,” by Matt Haig. A young woman decides to end her life, and winds up in a kind of supernatural middle space called the library, managed by a kindly old librarian who may or may not be her former teacher, or God. She has the chance, then, to choose other lives she might have lived, and is transported into those lives to try them out.
Despite the serious theme, the writing is clever and entertaining. Naturally, it made me think about my own what-ifs. Over the past two pandemic years, who didn’t feel like clicking their ruby slippers and going back to a pre-Covid world? Who didn’t romanticize other unlived lives?
I also read “Klara and the Sun,” by Kazuo Ishiguro. The story imagines a future in which parents can purchase artificial friend robots, or AF’s, for their kids. Children spend all their time indoors, learning on screens called “oblongs.” They attend special classes to learn how to socialize with their friends because their lives are so solitary.
I thought the robot story would be so removed from real life that it would offer distraction. However, the lives of the children in “Klara and the Sun” are prophetic of this exact time in history, when children are isolated and suffering from that isolation. Again, the novelist had his ear to the ground in a way no one could have predicted. His descriptions of a future dystopian society are prescient in many disturbing ways.
None of these novels can offer a flying carpet out of our own predicaments. What they can do, and it’s worth the ride, is validate the richness of the human experience and offer hope.
My third suggestion is “Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line,” by Deepa Anaparra. This story had the best chance of getting me out of my head and into the life of the 9-year-old Indian narrator who hopes to solve the mystery of disappearing children in his “basti,” or slum neighborhood. Strangely, the novel is buoyant and funny and ultimately hopeful, although it follows a tragic series of events. The joy was in the narrative “voice” of the young boy, whose observations of adult behavior are keen and funny.
I enjoyed the immersion in the sensory kaleidoscope that is India. The story depicts, too, the contrast of the “hi-fi” rich people who live in the “hi-fi” buildings outside the slums. So, before long, I was thinking about how our own home-grown disparities in wealth alter the experience of living through a global pandemic.
The last book I read this month was “Northern Spy,” by Flynn Berry, a thriller about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the divisions within the population and the mistrust between the IRA and the Brits. Countrymen and women turned against one another. Families divided over politics. Governments abusing their power. Politicians lying to their constituents and choosing personal power over service to the voters. Sound familiar?
The descriptions of scenery along the coast near Belfast are stunning. And the story is a page-turner. Of course, it also brought home the destabilizing political division in our own country.
Perhaps we cannot read to escape. No matter. We read to know that others survive tragedies. We read for the comfort of knowing that we are not alone.
Copyright 2022 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.