Are books a refuge from our lives or a place to reflect?

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Writing fiction set in times and places far removed from whence they were written was a popular device among authors in the early twentieth century, plagued as it was by wars, poverty and xenophobia. As my favourite book when I first heard of ‘inner emigration’, referring to the writers who remained in Germany under the Nazi regime, was Daphne Du Maurier’s Frenchman’s Creek (1941), understanding fiction as a form of escapism made sense to me. A book about a love affair between a French pirate and aristocratic English woman in the seventeenth century, Frenchman’s Creek was a romanticised view of the past written when the present was dominated by fascism. While seeking to find refuge in an imaginary place was attractive for writers then, do readers read books with the same purpose today?

“While seeking to find refuge in an imaginary place was attractive for writers then, do readers read books with the same purpose today?”

Comparing now to the 1930s and 1940s would make this article obsolete, yet the experiences of 2020, the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, offers an area of consideration. Much like World War II, COVID-19 was a global historical event defined by uncertainty, anxiety and mortality. Yet, the books I read in 2020 reflect not a desire to run from the times we were living in, but to understand them and find meaning in my life. My favourite book from the first lockdown was George Eliot’s Middlemarch, a book spanning 800 pages in which nothing really happens. While mortality, anxiety and uncertainty are not overtones of the book, it was nonetheless the first character focussed book I had read, reflecting the introspection I was experiencing for the first time in my life. At the same time, despite being set in a different century, it dealt with issues pertinent to the debate surrounding coronavirus, specifically class, since the impact of both COVID-19 and lockdown hit the lowest social groups the harshest. While Middlemarch was a personal favourite to me, there is reason to believe I was not alone in searching for entertaining that reflected the time we were living in. The book and BBC series Normal People was a huge success that year, becoming the most-streamed series of the year on the BBC for 2020. The story follows two young adults from school through university, as their lives oscillate towards and away from each other in a messy entanglement of relationships with each other and other people. Like Middlemarch, it is mundane and interpersonal and has a narrative of class, seen most acutely through the respective positions of Marianne and Connell’s families, which are linked not only through their romantic relationship, but through Connell’s mother’s position as Marianne’s cleaner. While class was an important and relevant theme, overarchingly Normal People was popular because so much of the show (and book) was driven by dialogue at a time when our real life was centred on relationships that relied exclusively on verbal communication rather than activities and new experiences to bond us. I, like many others, was sucked in by books and shows that taught me how to do this and how to better understand people. 

Even when we aren’t living through times of global crisis, our taste in books reflects our personal lives, too. Within the last year, I have moved to Paris as an exchange student and my taste in books has transitioned from those featuring all-consuming, complex, unhealthy relationships to books of simplicity and adventure. One of my favourite books from second year, Conversations with Friends, follows a twenty-one-year-old university student named Francis in her romantic and platonic relationships with her best friend and former girlfriend Bobbi, and Francis’ married, older boyfriend, Nick. Francis is emotionally unavailable and struggles with vulnerability and intimacy, underpinning her self-destructive behaviour. By far the most complex character in the novel, I found refuge in reading about a character who exhibited the same behaviour as people I knew, or otherwise represented my own anxieties. My favourite quotes from the book are invariably “she pronounced Liese’s name without any particular love or hatred, just a girl she had known, and for months afterwards, maybe forever afterwards, I was afraid that someday she would say my name that way too,” (p. 226); and “you underestimate your own power so that you don’t have to blame yourself for treating other people badly,” (p. 302). In similar vein, Exciting Times, which I read at the end of third term, focusses on a twenty-two-year-old university graduate working as a TEFL teacher in Hong Kong. Ava is absorbed by her relationship with Julian, a twenty-eight-year-old banker, and shares her sadistic take on their relationship, which is determined by the multitude of power dynamics in a heterosexual relationship featuring both a wealth and age gap, through her internal monologue. My favourite quote from this short novel is, “I was less responsible for what I said if I’d soaked it up from other people. If someone said something to hurt me, it wasn’t because they meant to but because they’d surrounded themselves with unkind people in the past,” (p. 228). A year ago, I was a twenty-one-year-old living in Durham, faced with the double-helix of heartbreak and trying to understand myself and those around me, in a place so small that there is no respite from the intense relationships we find ourselves entwined in. 

“Books help us understand what we are feeling and give us the vocabulary to describe them to ourselves and other people, and for books to have that power, they must be relevant to our lives in that moment.”

The fact that my favourite books directly reflected my experiences or feelings with romantic and platonic partners is unsurprising. Books are meant to validate our feelings and help us articulate our emotions. Author of The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides, in his lesser known (and arguably lesser) book The Marriage Plot wrote of his book-loving main character, “What made Madeleine sit up in bed was something closer to the reason she read books in the first place and had always loved them. Here was a sign that she wasn’t alone. Here was an articulation of what she had been so far mutely feeling.” Books help us understand what we are feeling and give us the vocabulary to describe them to ourselves and other people, and for books to have that power, they must be relevant to our lives in that moment. 

The book which was to become my favourite book by the end of 2022, A Certain Smile by Francoise Sagan, shares some similarities with Normal People and Exciting Times. It is written from the perspective of Dominique, a twenty-one-year-old who is also having an affair with a married older man, yet this time it is her boyfriend’s uncle, Luc. However, the book, set in Paris, follows a story of old romance – there are dates and dances and spontaneous getaways – in place of the disturbing and emotionally abusive relationships exhibited in books such those written by Sally Rooney and Naoise Dolan. After five months living in Paris, my favourite quote from A Certain Smile was and still is, “Happiness is a flat expanse without landmarks,” and, away from the drama of messy and intense interpersonal relationships of Durham, I’m happy to think that reflects my life today.

Image Credits: Josh Hild via Unsplash

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