Armchair travelling

Image credit: WOKANDAPIX

In the absence of any next-level plot twists in the narrative of my life, reading is the closest I will ever come to travelling through space and time. Over the years, novels have taken me out of the narrow parameters of my existence and plunged me into seventeenth century Amsterdam, modern day Nigeria, Renaissance England, civil war America, and settings that seemed divorced from place or time altogether. As a child, the books I relished most were those that paid particular attention to world building. Books like Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus or the Harry Potter series were intense sources of pleasure for me, the writers taking care over every detail in order to create worlds that enabled me to lose myself completely. The transportive power of these books seemed to be a sort of magic, forcing me to read hungrily as I was so enticed by their seemingly endless depth.

Literature like this is also a form of escape. I was that slightly odd child that often preferred to read a book than play with her cousins, finding that the characters of fiction proved a failsafe for non-threatening social interaction time and time again. Though I wouldn’t recommend living your entire life in imaginary worlds, this means of escape has remained with me into adulthood – no matter how bad things are, I’ve always been able to find comfort in a good book or favourite poem. I truly don’t think there’s anything wrong with this, and anyone who tells you to stop spending so much time with your head in the clouds needs to check themselves and go and watch a Pixar movie.

As we grow older or become more entrenched in the sphere of literary criticism, I think we lose sight of this kind of pleasure-based reading. So much of the way we are taught to read as adults, and particularly as students, is centred around ideas of meta, genius, truth, and meaning. Yes, all that stuff is important, but we do ourselves a disservice in forgetting what was so great about reading in the first place, i.e. the places it takes us. I miss reading out of sheer curiosity, using literature as a means of travel and discovery, and not just a surface for critical penetration.

With that in mind, here are my top five recommendations for all-consuming, escapist literature:

1. Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood

Who doesn’t love a bit of terrifying dystopia to lighten the mood? The first in her recent MaddAddam trilogy, Oryx and Crake transports us to a world of apocalyptic horror, so detailed and real in its construal of a society overrun by patriarchal science that you’ll be quaking in your boots by the end.

2. Rebecca, by Daphne Du Maurier

Du Maurier’s Manderley is one of the most enchanting fictional settings I have ever come across. Prepare to be swept away into a world of aristocratic twentieth century ostentatiousness and edenic gardens in this modern gothic.

3. Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys

As well as being an important and compelling work of postcolonial literature, Wide Sargasso Sea offers a wealth of glorious description, fictionalising scenes from nineteenth century Dominica and Jamaica in its subversive response to Jane Eyre’s ‘madwoman in the attic’.

4. Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent

In this historical novel, Hannah Kent takes us to Iceland in the early 1800s, weaving a narrative of events leading up to the last public execution in 1829. Her portrayal of Scandinavian feudalism is intensely fraught, complex, and beautiful.

5. Daughter of Smoke and Bone Trilogy, by Laini Taylor

This story starts off in Prague, but if you can bear to put your snobbish reservations about YA fiction aside for a second, you’ll be transported to fantasy settings so diverse and compelling you won’t be able to put the book down. 

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