Feeling a little blue? Here are my top ten books for cloudy days
At the moment, the UK lock-down has us flitting between days of golden sunshine, birdsong and barbecue-smoke, and days which turn the sky into a blanket of soft grey, the wind howling and knocking my TV aerial off my roof.
If you’re not quite ready to whip out the cheap summer romances or delve into cosy Christmas tales, here’s my list on the in-between: the hopefully hopeless, the garish gothics and the Northern idylls.
- Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson (1980)
What is Housekeeping other than a vast swallowing? Housekeeping is a masterclass in freezing, watery atmosphere, the chilblains seeping through the pages in an eerily unsettlement. The town of Fingerbone, an isolated, ghostly setting – hollowed out and waterlogged by the great lake it sits beside – is as numbing as it is immersive. The absolute skill of Robinson in transporting the reader to the American Northwest and constructing the discomforting, glaucous mountain isolation is – in my opinion – totally unrivaled in modern literature. The Evening Standard‘s review attests that Housekeeping ‘calls to be read slowly’, a sentiment with which I totally agree. Each word is deserving of careful, laborious treatment if you’re to fully submerge yourself in Robinson’s disconcerting purgatory.
- Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte (1847)
Wuthering Heights is a gothic tragedy masquerading as a sort of romantic thriller. Set on the hellish, barren English moors, it ticks all the boxes: waifish, cruel children; a dark Byronic hero; borderline incestuous relationships; multiple unhingings; violent ghosts and more death than you can keep track of. Bronte’s use of cyclicality creates an entrapment between heaven and hell within the two households on opposite ends of these craggy moors. This entrapment is one which spans multiple generations and appears inescapable in its commitment to environmental brutality. You can also listen to Kate Bush’s warbling Wuthering Heights alongside it for ultimate ambiance, which can only be a bonus.
- A Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde (1890)
While A Picture of Dorian Gray begins in a homoerotic flower garden, it quickly takes the shape of the ultimate gothic horror novel. While the idyll of Dorian Gray’s romantic opening and the proclamations of adoration towards Dorian himself – which later landed in Wilde’s infamous trial as evidence against his homosexuality – is escapism wrapped in a fragrant charm, the moral descent into madness which follows is the true masterpiece. Veering between contemplations on beauty, philosophy and the psychological gothic, there is consistent vibrant delight in Wilde’s prose: A Picture of Dorian Gray is a work of literary passion from each angle.
- The Outsiders, Susan Hinton (1967)
Set in the rough-and-tumble American 1950s, The Outsiders is a mix between a Grease-like fantasy of gang warfare between kids named things like Ponyboy, Sodapop or Cherry, and a straight-up exploration of the consequences of murder on children. The Outsiders is straightforward and charming, at times emotionally complex but ultimately tidy through our narrator’s childish eyes. The novel offers a strange consolation throughout in its simple prosaic style and nicely wrapped ending, perfect for days when the World seems a bit too complicated.
- I have no Mouth and I Must Scream, Harlan Ellison (1967)
If you’re looking for something viscerally, nightmarishly horrible: here’s the short story for you. I have no Mouth is ideal for a further descent into despair if you’re already feeling pretty lousy: it’s self-indulgently violent, garish and post-apocalyptic. If you’re wanting psychological torture, physical torture and a real, solid cruelty, then Ellison pulls absolutely no punches. It’s also a meager 14 pages long, but if you want a happier ending, there’s a critically acclaimed 1995 video game based on the story, which does allow a ‘happy’ end. The helplessness of I have no Mouth comes in waves and when contrasted with the humanity of its protagonist, it becomes a real teeth-clenching atrocity.
- The Danish Girl, David Ebershoff (2000)
The Danish Girl is, I think, a story of hope above all. The cosiness of Copenhagen’s shore from within a painter’s workshop combined with a half-fanciful, half-truthful account of the real-life transgender pioneer Lili Elbe’s life and marriage makes for a story rife with beauty, sorrow and careful colour. It is also a book gently wet with suffering and preceded by a startlingly bloodied embodiment, Lily’s brittle body becoming gradually a war-ground over which the book is fought. The Danish Girl is a wonderfully genuine account which spares no agony, but spares no vibrant beauty, either.
- Tess of the D’urbervilles, Thomas Hardy (1891)
Tess of the D’urbervilles is a slippery cross between a pagan autumnal countryside idyll and a Victorian tale of sorrow. Tess, a pure, working girl, is bound by the hands of fate to her melancholic decline, sinking further and further into the mud of constrictive Victorian morality in Hardy’s subversive statement against the injustice of what we now know as ‘victim-blaming’. A story which delights in its romantic pasture as well as constricts in a tale of innocence, forgiveness, betrayal, poverty, violence and romance which is all framed against Tess’ unfortunate fall from grace.
- The Lonely Londoners, Sam Selvon (1956)
Historically, geographically and orally-bound in both the futility and hope of the West Indies immigrants arriving in a foggy, repellent 1950s London, the concrete coldness of Selvon’s city is difficult to foothold. The characters we follow are often irreconcilably ‘othered’ by their embodiment, loneliness and exploitation in the endless limbs of the sprawling capital. Yet amid this is a lively, humorous hardiness, one which is interspersed with an impressive resilience and offhanded comedy in homage to the characters who come to create meaning for themselves against the current.
- The Cripple of Inishmaan, Martin McDonagh (1996)
McDonagh is a brilliant postmodern playwright who manages to combine senseless violence with slapstick humour and a grisly, 1930s Irish realism. Cripple is as hilarious as it is upsetting; its fast-paced and meaningless plot folding in on itself to produce little more than an intense, bursting entertainment sure to delight. The overcast, sickly island of Inishmaan is the setting for the ultimate dark comedy, veering wildly between gratuitous violence and a comedic deconstruction, and it might be impossible to pull any moral or meaning from the wreckage. But if you’re looking for something weightless, here it is.
- Being Mortal, Atul Gawande (2014)
A non-fictitious work to round off the list: Gawande’s almost mystically measured and calming insight into the end of life is – above all – an enormous comfort. It’s frank without being abrasive, soothing without being coddling and claims to be nothing more than it is. An unfaltering, dignified exploration of death and end-of-life care is one which, even if not currently relevant for you, should be read by everybody. A soft consideration of mortality bears fruits which are sometimes chilling, often moving and always worthwhile.
Image Credit to @AnnieSpratt on Unsplash