Coronavirus: 7 books to keep calm and read on during self-isolation
The best books to accompany you while you stay home
by Olivia Ho /
April 4, 2020
“Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room,” wrote the poet William Wordsworth, “And hermits are contented with their cells”. Should what he calls “the weight of too much liberty” – or 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.
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 farther 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.
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.
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 as 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 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 in May, from being hotly anticipated.
4. MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION (2018) by Ottessa Moshfegh
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.
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.