By Lydia Kendall-McDougall
Never Let Me Go is a brilliant read for anyone interested in dystopia, science and the human condition. It follows the lives of a group of ‘donors’, clones of real people navigating their lives from childhood to adulthood, experiencing love, loss and the consequences of their identities. It’s wonderfully written, heartfelt, and is as much realism as it is science-fiction. There’s also a film adaptation starring Kiera Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield.
I’d really recommend this book for a time like this- despite all its drama, melancholy and tragedy, it is one of the most comforting and idyllic books I’ve ever read. It surrounds the rural life of Victorian England and the experiences in love and betrayal of the main protagonist, Bathsheba. This book has something to offer to everyone, and the tumultuous relationship between Bathsheba and a young shepherd, Gabriel Oak, is something to get really invested in.
McEwan’s 2016 Nutshell is adventurous, witty, and chaotic. It is told from the perspective of a baby inside a mother’s womb, listening to the lives of his mother and her lover, who plan to murder his father. The narration is profound and surprisingly mature, echoing that of Hamlet (but you don’t need to know Hamlet to get this book), and is as grotesque as it is comedic. It’s very unusual and takes a while to wrap your head around, but is definitely worth the read and, unlike Hardy, isn’t too long.
Their Eyes Were Watching God- written in 1937- follows its main character, Janie Crawford, blooming from a naïve child into a woman who knows the world. Considered a Harlem Renaissance classic, it explores themes of gender, race, motherhood, love and the home, to name just a few. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read, and taught me as much as it moved me. Janie’s passage into knowing her own identity in relation to herself and the world around her is wonderfully written, both personal and political.
The Sympathizer opens with the fall of Saigon, and tells the story of a sleeper agent in America just after the Vietnam War. It is genre-blending, extremely clever and deals with issues of identity, secrecy and politics. It also explores the problem of Hollywood and popular culture in its representations of both the war and Vietnamese people as a result. Nguyen is a brilliant writer and is also great to follow on twitter (@viet_t_nguyen), and the sequel to this book, The Committed is coming shortly!
Ali Smith’s seasons quartet is a great collection of books for self-isolation! Currently Spring, Autumn and Winter are out, with Summer coming up. Not only do the covers look very aesthetically pleasing together, with David Hockey paintings fitted to each time of year, but the writing itself is brilliant and each book offers something new, so you don’t need to have read one to read the others. Autumn, for example, centres around generational connections, sexuality and art, focused on the friendship between a 101-year-old and a 32-year-old.
Trumpet is one of the most memorable books I’ve ever read and I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t love it. It jumps across the perspectives of a multitude of people reacting to the death of famous trumpeter, Joss Moody, who is revealed posthumously (to everyone other than his wife, who has always known) to be transgender. It’s a book very much about family, love, grief and acceptance. It’s heart-breaking and beautiful from the very beginning, and is so moving that the most impactful moment is the last sentence.
This collection of short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri centre around diaspora, identity and human relationships. From a couple spilling secrets in candlelight, to hidden artefacts uncovered in a new home, the stories explore the experience of Indians and Indian Americans who navigate the boundaries of identity, which opens up topics from the domestic to sex and fetishisation. The stories are linked by these themes but can be read independently, and are so cleverly observant.
I’d normally try and avoid putting two Vietnam War novels on one list in avoidance of over-doing it, but this is one of my favourite books ever (which is why it’s the topic of my dissertation and the one book I recommend to anyone I meet). It’s the part-memoir-part-fictional account of O’Brien’s experience of being a foot soldier during the war, and is harrowing, perceptive and beautifully written. It explores themes such as truth and fiction, war, friendship and trauma among a collection of short-story-like chapters and is brutally honest. It’s a difficult book which may be triggering to some, but if you’re comfortable and prepared then this is definitely worth a read.
But if you’re looking for a break from war and violence, and just want a simple romance read, then this is what you’re looking for. I read this a few years ago on a summer holiday (remember them?), but it would work just as well in quarantine! It’s your classic ‘girl working in a tea room meets a famous musician’ but I was sucked in and if you love a bit of love and just want some comfort in these trying times, then give this a read.