The best short novels to read in lockdown

    4 June 2020

    I began lockdown by sharing my favourite crime fiction, and now, as we gradually make our way back to normality, it seems only fitting to recommend some shorter reads. We may have begun lockdown with grand ambitions but don’t despair if you haven’t yet waded into Moby Dick. There’s still time to get through some excellent compact titles instead:

    They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell

    They Came Like Swallows, William Maxwell

    Thanks to the brilliant books podcast Backlisted, I have become a devotee of American author William Maxwell. His quietly profound stories, grounded in his own life experiences, are a thing of wonder. A couple of weeks ago, I picked up They Came Like Swallows, which I started without realising is set amid the Spanish Flu epidemic. I’ve tried to avoid Covid-19 news or anything related to it to save myself from going insane.

    However, Maxwell is just so good that once I started on this story of a family tragedy seen through the eyes of two brothers and their father, I couldn’t stop. It’s a heartbreaking book, but if you can face it, you’ll be hooked on Maxwell for life. Gluttons for this kind of material should also pick up Nemesis, Philip Roth’s superb and under-rated final novel, which focuses on a young boy’s experience of a polio epidemic.

    Music from Big Pink by John Niven

    Music from Big Pink, John Niven

    Scottish author John Niven is best known for his raucous comedies Kill Your Friends and Straight White Male, but my favourite book of his is his debut, Music from Big Pink, a novella about the creation of The Band’s debut record.

    Compared to Niven’s later books, this one is positively minor key, and it’s absolutely magnificent. An expiring junkie looks back on his younger days, spent in Woodstock dealing drugs to and making friends with The Band as they recorded their masterpiece. Bob Dylan makes a few cameo appearances, but you don’t have to be a fan of his or The Band’s music to fall for this evocative coming of age story.

    Dark Matter by Michelle Paver

    Dark Matter, Michelle Paver

    If you fancy reading a ghost story to take your mind off the terrors of the real world, then Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter is a treat. Short enough to get through in a couple of sittings, it’s a tense and psychologically convincing tale set in the 1930s about a young explorer who joins an expedition to the Arctic, receiving a ghostly welcome when he gets there.

    Stephen King’s Joyland is a similarly spooky and entertaining book, set in that most quintessential of horror story settings, an American theme park. For a short, sharp shock of a crime novel, try Jonathan Ames’s You Were Never Really Here. The film version, starring Joaquin Phoenix, is very good, too.

    The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

    The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark

    Not all classics are weighty tomes. At the start of lockdown, I briefly considered finally getting round to The Brothers Karamazov, but The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie called to me from the ‘to be read’ pile, instead. Spark’s best known novel, about a maverick school-teacher and her specially selected set of pupils, is rich in detail and ideas despite its brevity, with the author’s sharp wit deployed mercilessly throughout.

    For a comic classic of a less bleak kind, a trip up the Thames with Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat might do you some good.

    Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis

    Time’s Arrow, Martin Amis

    One of Amis’s shortest novels, Time’s Arrow proves that good things come in small packages. Amis narrates a life backwards with all the actions told in reverse – going to sleep becomes waking up and death becomes birth.

    The plot follows the life of a Nazi doctor who imbues the idea of his own backwards narrative to such a degree that he believes the horrors of the Holocaust to be a creative act that is giving birth to a new race. Thus Amis cleverly unpicks the warped ideology of Hitler’s genocide – all through literary form. A must read.

    Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

    Train Dreams, Denis Johnson

    Train Dreams by the late, great Denis Johnson inexplicably failed to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2012, when the judges couldn’t decide on a winner. Set at the turn of the 19th century, this miniature epic about a labourer in the American West coming to terms with personal tragedy as the country changes around him is told in Johnson’s customary tough but poetic prose style. It’s so good it deserved to win the Pulitzer twice.

    Richard Brautigan, another idiosyncratic American author who is no longer with us, is also worth exploring for those who like their books short: Dreaming of Babylon, a weird and very funny take on the private eye novel, or the more elegiac So The Wind Won’t Blow It All Away are great entry points into his off-beat world. 

    Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift

    Mothering Sunday, Graham Swift

    Because we are annoying bastards, my family has been doing book group meetings via Zoom since lockdown started. Choosing short books was one of our criteria, and that was the thing that gave me the idea for this piece. The aformetioned Miss Jean Brodie was one of our choices, Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift was another.

    Set just after the First World War, it focuses on a pivotal day in the life of a young maid who is in an ‘upstairs, downstairs’ affair with a local posh boy. I loved this book. Its frank description of sex elevates it from Downton Abbey-style mundanity, and its playful structure and exploration of the nature of storytelling make for a thought provoking reading experience.

    Weather by Jenny Offill

    Weather, Jenny Offill

    Keeping up with the latest new fiction can be a tough ask at the best of times, so focusing on short novels makes getting through at least some of the latest releases much easier. Weather, a stylistically bold book which unfolds in short, clipped paragraphs, is about a woman trying to keep things together as she supports her wayward brother. At the same time she looks after her son and holds down a couple of jobs, while also trying to not go mad in the face of climate catastrophe.

    For me, the book works best when Offill’s biting one liners are on display, and although it paints a vivid picture of a hectic, pre-lockdown world, there’s certainly plenty in it that speaks to our current situation. For more recent short fiction, go for Lanny by Max Porter and Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss. I recommended these books last year, but they’re both so good that they warrant a second mention.