If the real world turning upside down isn’t quite enough for you, then give Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban a go. Set a couple of millennia after a nuclear holocaust, in an England returned to the middle ages, this is a coming of age novel seen through the eyes of the eponymous hero, who turns 13 in the opening chapter, and who uncovers disastrous attempts to recreate the deadly weapon of the Ancients. The novel was around ten years in the writing, and Hoban spent much of this time developing the dialect Riddley speaks – a kind of Kentish, full of pagan, Christian and post-holocaust mythology. The language is as broken and strange as the world he inhabits, but the poetry of it is wonderful – and has made the book a cult classic, beloved of many an author. I’ve used it in my seminar course at Goldsmiths; there is a paperback edition with an excellent introduction by Will Self; fans of David Mitchell will also see Hoban’s influence.
If you prefer your escapism to be a little more of an escape, then read any Moomins book by Tove Jansson. Finn Family Moomintroll is worth it for the first chapter alone, when all the residents of the Moominhouse prepare for hibernation, eating pine needles and winding the clocks, and generally winding down for a long, long sleep. ‘Outside, the snow fell thick and soft. It already covered the steps and hung thickly from the rooves and eaves. Soon Moominhouse would be nothing but a big, round snowball. The clocks stopped ticking one by one. Winter had come.’ It’s the cosiest of cosy lockdown reads - but with Tove Janssen’s signature dark humour at the heart of everything, so it’s also brilliantly sharp and funny. You might find you’re like Moomintroll at the moment, and resentful of hibernation (‘I’m afraid we shall waste an awful lot of time’) - in which case, read Moominland Midwinter; in that one he wakes early and experiences Moominvalley as he has never seen it before: locked deep in winter, but full of unexpected life. Little My is my personal favourite – either laughing or furious, never anything in between – but I also love the infuriating sporty Hemulen who insists everyone should get fresh air and exercise and is baffled that the others should be so vexed by this.
Or, if you need something a little more far-flung and feral to stir your lockdown soul, then try The Call of the Wild by Jack London. It’s recently been made into a film with Harrison Ford and a very dodgy CGI St Bernard. I sat through the trailer (awful) and refuse to sully my memory of this great book any further. The cartoonish dog is a far cry from London’s noble Buck, who is snatched from his California home and broken in as a sled dog in the frozen Yukon during the gold rush. It’s a raw depiction of man and animal pitted against the elements – and especially of dog pitted against man’s will - but Buck does find a master to love. If the Dogs that Match the Floor calendar is anything to go by, Rye Books customers know the great value of a canine friend - you won’t fail to be moved. An audiobook version is available on Audible, free during lockdown. (Sorry, Rye Books, I shouldn’t really mention that... But it is very good… And it’s well worth buying a paper copy to read alongside!)
If lockdown bakes are your thing, then Classic German Baking by Luisa Weiss is exactly what you need. Local Italians and Danes may take issue here, but being of German extraction, I reckon German baking ranks high, especially when it comes to comfort cakes. Weiss has gathered and perfected recipes from across Germany and Austria, and even has a chapter on how to make ingredients hard to source in Blighty – plum butter, almond paste and the like. This book has all the Streusels and Strudels and Pretzels you will ever need, but for starters, try the Versunkener Apfelkuchen, in which apple quarters are sunken into lemony sponge. Or her apple cake made with yeast dough – which will work very well with plums too, once summer comes and lockdown eases…
Finally, I’d like to recommend a new release that I'd been looking forward to during lockdown - and hope to pick it up at Rye Books on North Cross Road in person someday soon. The Invisible Land by Man Booker International longlisted Hubert Mingarelli, who sadly passed away last year. Over two blazing July weeks in 1945, a photographer embedded with the British troops, and present at the liberation of Belsen, sets out on a road trip across Germany to photograph Germans - perhaps to try and fathom them – before he returns home to England. He finds a people stunned by defeat, angry, exhausted, seemingly cut adrift, and the encounters Mingarelli depicts are by turns moving and disturbing. It’s only 139 pages, but it will stay with you.
You can pick up Rachel's "extraordinary" novel A Boy in Winter here.