Reading a good novel oxygenates the psyche. It’s an excursion from everyday experience into a different reality that leaves you refreshed and better able to cope with life.
At a time of acute stress like this, such novels come into their own. Anne Enright’s Actress, published last month, is one such gem. I read it with gratitude recently when locked-down alone through Covid-19 restrictions and prevented from even venturing outside my front door.
Novels touch us most deeply where we can identify with emotional truths. People’s relationships are often ambiguous and fraught, even when they are loving and enduring. Idealised depictions of relations between mothers and daughters or husbands and wives create impossible standards of perfection that undermine the ability to overcome inevitable problems. It’s a relief to find in fiction something that feels more like the lives we actually lead.
I read Actress absolutely rapt from cover to cover. It was emotionally draining and at times almost unbearably poignant. As a result I felt better.
The virus-infected world outside, when I returned to it, was still terrifying. Under virtual house arrest, however, I had felt that during the hours of reading this book I had escaped to inhabit another, intensely felt and ultimately uplifting domain.
Of course, novels can provide this kind of immersive experience when, or perhaps because, there is no identification with your own life. In case anyone thinks I only read novels about distressed children, I also love the novels of Kate Atkinson — who has said of her dazzling, often quirky books: “I live to entertain” — the historical novelist Robert Harris and the tragicomic chronicler of America, Philip Roth.
And having read Hilary Mantel’s first two novels in her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, I’m now looking forward to getting stuck into the newly published final doorstopper, The Mirror and the Light. That should keep me going until the lockdown is lifted.
To read my whole Times column (£), please click here.