Keep calm and read on... in isolation: Seven books for solitude

We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson and Severance by Ling Ma.
We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson and Severance by Ling Ma. PHOTOS: PENGUIN CLASSICS, FARRAR, STRAUS AND GIROUX

SINGAPORE - "Nuns fret not at their convent's narrow room," wrote the poet William Wordsworth, "And hermits are contented with their cells." Should what Wordsworth calls "the weight of too much liberty" - or rather, concerns about catching the coronavirus - drive you to seek solace in solitude, here are seven books about fictional lives in isolation to keep you company.

1. WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE (1962)

By Shirley Jackson

Available at bit.ly/Castle_SJ

Two sisters hole up in their house after the rest of their family are fatally poisoned in the final and arguably finest novel by Jackson, America's queen of Gothic horror.

Eighteen-year-old Merricat is the only Blackwood who ventures into town, braving the villagers' hostility to get supplies and library books. Her elder sister Constance, who was arrested for the murders but acquitted, never goes further than the garden, spending her days cooking and caring for their uncle Julian, who has been rendered an invalid by the poison.

Their hermetic existence is disrupted when their cousin Charles moves into the house, with what Merricat suspects to be designs on their inheritance.

2. SEVERANCE (2018)

By Ling Ma

Available at bit.ly/Severance_LM

Candace Chen, a quiet young New Yorker who is the daughter of Chinese immigrants, works in a publishing firm and oversees the manufacture of bibles in China.

 

When an epidemic called Shen Fever breaks out in China and spreads globally, she volunteers to stay behind to man the Manhattan headquarters for an astronomical payout, eventually setting up home in the deserted office as the city outside disintegrates into apocalypse.

Severance is set in 2011, but is eerily resonant amid the Covid-19 outbreak. It weaves together beautifully the strands of urban alienation, late-stage capitalism and the migrant condition.

3. THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (2018)

By A. J. Finn

Available at bit.ly/WW_Finn

In the grand tradition of the single-space mystery - think Alfred Hitchcock's films Rope (1948) and Rear Window (1954) - the protagonist of this noirish thriller is confined to her brownstone because of her agoraphobia. When she witnesses what she thinks is a murder, she calls the police - but since she is an alcoholic voyeur and the murdered woman seems not to exist, they are disinclined to believe her.

Finn, the pseudonym of editor Daniel Mallory, was himself the subject of a New Yorker expose last year for lying about having brain cancer, among many other things - though that has not stopped the film adaptation of his book, starring Amy Adams and out this May, from being hotly anticipated.


The Woman In The Window by A.J. Finn and My Year of Rest And Relaxation by Otessa Moshfegh. PHOTOS: WILLIAM MORROW, VINTAGE PUBLISHING
 

4. MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION (2018)

By Ottessa Moshfegh

Available at bit.ly/RR_OM

In this caustic, blackly comic novel, a privileged young woman retreats into a drug-induced haze in her apartment, numbing her senses with television, anti-depressants and blackout-inducing pills. She spends longer and longer periods asleep even as the world around her changes, culminating in the Sept 11, 2001, attacks.

Moshfegh can be scathingly, scabrously funny in her misanthropy - though hopefully readers will not try to replicate this experiment during their work-from-home stint.

5. THE WATER CURE (2018)

By Sophie Mackintosh

Available at bit.ly/Water_Cure

In a house on a remote island, three sisters - Grace, Lia and Sky - live with their parents, Mother and King. They are bound by strict rules laid down by King, who has them sewn into "fainting sacks" or nearly drowned in the swimming pool - all "therapies", they are told, to keep them immune to the toxic outside world from which they have been quarantined.

When King vanishes suddenly and three refugees - two men and a young boy - wash up ashore, the girls are left unmoored and subject to desires they cannot fathom.

Mackintosh's debut, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, crafts a sinister fairy tale twist on wellness that imagines masculinity as being literally toxic.


The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh and Endgame by Samuel Beckett. PHOTOS: BOUBLEDAYREADERS, FABER & FABER

6. ENDGAME (1958)

By Samuel Beckett

Available at bit.ly/Endgame_SB

Not to be confused with Marvel's Avengers movie finale, this one-act play, a postmodernist classic, takes place in a single room with four characters forced to live together in privation, unable to go outside. There is Hamm, who cannot stand; Clov, who cannot sit but must look after Hamm; and Hamm's parents, Nagg and Nell, who live in dustbins. "Why this farce, day after day?" they say to one another.

Being grounded at home for long might leave you feeling sorry for yourself - "Can there be misery loftier than mine?" declaims Hamm - but things could always be worse. At least you are not stuck in a dustbin.


Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon. PHOTOS: DELACORTE BOOKS FOR YOUNG READERS

7. EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING (2015)

By Nicola Yoon

Available at bit.ly/Everything_NY

For most of her life, 18-year-old Maddy has been unable to leave her house. Her mother, a doctor who is treating her for severe combined immunodeficiency, says that Maddy is practically allergic to everything. Everyone and everything that enters their house has to be sanitised, even the air.

Maddy develops a crush on her neighbour, Olly, a parkour enthusiast with an abusive father, and they bond first over e-mail, and later through secretive meetings. As their love grows, she begins to contemplate risking her life for the chance to really live.

Yoon's debut young adult novel - sweet, funny and blooming with warmth - is the brightest entry on this list.

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