By Anne Goodwin
How has the Covid pandemic affected your reading? Have you lapped up lockdown literature or have you avoided it – cliché alert – like the plague? For some, that period is too painful to revisit in fiction; for others, it’s a slice of history we shouldn’t forget. Stories can help us process our personal experience or highlight impacts that we, enclosed in our bubbles, might have overlooked.
The lockdown literature I’ve most enjoyed uses the pandemic not as plot, but as setting. It’s the stage on which the characters struggle, succeed or sink. They’re constrained, and sometimes bored, but not boring. Surprising things can happen when ordinary life is put on hold.
Let me introduce some of the fiction I read as I was drafting and editing my own lockdown novel. They illustrate a variety of responses to a shared situation. Follow the links for more detailed reviews.
I first encountered the pandemic in a novel in September 2021. The Leftovers by Cassandra Parkin examines the layers of deception within dysfunctional families, and compassionately explores the workings of atypical minds. Lockdown plays only a small part in the overall story, yet it enhances the reader’s empathy for a non-verbal man trapped in a care home where the staff misinterpret his needs. The main character, Callie, gets a job as his live-in carer, but is this an act of altruism or self-interest?
Set in early 2020, A Time Outside This Time by Amitava Kumar focuses on the mismanagement of vulnerabilities on a larger canvas. As anxieties spread about the new coronavirus, we needed accurate information and sensitive leadership. The author-narrator, with a foot in both India and America, was dependent on Modi and Trump. Here, he chronicles his obsessive search for facts in the age of fake news. Can the stories of science help us? Can the deliberate lies of the novel point to the truth?
The country house is a popular frame for fiction, so a gathering of friends to sit out lockdown in a rural setting has obvious appeal. In Our Country Friends by Gary Shteyngart, Sasha invites an outspoken former student, a famous actor, an itinerant socialite, and his two oldest friends to his dacha-style complex upstate New York. There, along with his psychiatrist wife and precocious young daughter, they eat, drink, smoke and fall in and out of love. This novel also touches on the political with a backlash against the Black Lives Matter protests.
Lockdown brought loneliness, anxiety and disorientation for many, and a crisis in mental health. This is the theme of The Fell by Sarah Moss, a stream of consciousness narrative set in the Peak District National Park. Kate should be self-isolating after a contact contracted the virus, but she grabs her rucksack and sets out for a walk. Whether or not we approve of her law-breaking, it’s easy to identify with her impromptu decision. But she’s ill-prepared for an accident and the autumn light is beginning to fade.
Diana, in Wish You Were Here by Jodi Picoult, is also lonely and ill-equipped for her situation, but at least the sun is shining. Arriving in the Galapagos, she’s the sole tourist, can’t speak Spanish and the hotels and restaurants are closed. This intriguing novel, in which all is not as it appears on the surface, starts with the all-too-familiar first-world dilemma of interrupted plans. Yet it delves deeper than many into the medical side of the virus, with one character hospitalised prior to vaccines and another an overworked doctor.
Set mostly in a care home, my novel, Lyrics for the Loved Ones, incorporates medical, social, psychological and political aspects of the pandemic into a story both humorous and humane. Matty has grand – some would say grandiose – plans for her hundredth birthday until lockdown intervenes. Assisted by a teenage care assistant, she transfers the celebration online, raising thousands for charity. But hidden histories prove a bigger threat than the virus: the child she gave up for adoption and her family’s ties to the transatlantic slave trade which the Black Lives Matter protests expose.
Are you drawn to or repelled by lockdown literature?
Which novels, if any, would you recommend?
Anne Goodwin makes stuff up to tell the truth about adversity, creating characters to care about and stories to make you think. Her fiction explores identity, mental health and social justice with compassion, humour and hope. Subscribers to her newsletter can download a free e-book of award-winning short stories.
Anne Goodwin, Lyrics for the Loved Ones (Anecdotal, 2023). 978-1739145026, 346pp., paperback original.