Humour: Five novel ideas to beat isolation blues

From trans-Atlantic drama to Mumbai masala, fiction can kill quarantine time
Books make for lively companions in unnervingly still times(Photo imaging: Parth Garg)
Books make for lively companions in unnervingly still times(Photo imaging: Parth Garg)
Updated on Apr 05, 2020 02:33 AM IST
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Hindustan Times | By Rehana Munir

Confronted with a novel virus, we need a novel cure. Are you, like much of middle-class humanity, wondering what to do with the “gift” of time, which doesn’t involve substances, non-stop news monitoring or meme hunting? Here are five novels that make for lively companions in unnervingly still times.

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café
By Fannie Flagg (1987)

How not to like a book that sounds that appetising? The multi-generational novel shuttles between a home for the elderly in the 1980s, and a little town in Alabama in the 1920s, where the Threadgoode family live, laugh and love. At the heart of it is the titular café, run by the wilful, untameable, magnanimous Idgie and her beloved Ruth. A same-sex love story of beautiful dimensions, without explicitly labelling the relationship at its core. A family that holds a community together and a café that is a town’s heartbeat. A colourful mix of comfort food and oddball characters, engaging events and universal themes. The perfect world to dive into when you feel like you need distance from the social distance. (I believe the film doesn’t do it justice. Now’s a good time to find out.)

By Jeffrey Eugenides (2002)

The sweeping narrative takes root in Asia Minor during World War II and makes its way to America, where the narrator will eventually be born. Cal, our American storyteller of Greek-origin, suffers a rare chromosomal mutation that results in them occupying a rare space on the gender spectrum – of not completely being female or male, but morphing, as it were, from one to the other. But mainly, it’s funny! A richly comic novel that uses everything from incest, genetic abnormalities,political turmoil and private grief to fuel a raging literary bonfire. Darkly humorous without being hopeless, it offers a handy approach to our bewildering times.

On Beauty
By Zadie Smith (2005)

When Zadie Smith writes, it’s like her words dance on the page. Which is fitting if one thinks of her advice to writers on dancing. But I digress. On Beauty is the English novelist’s comic take on the mighty E.M. Forster’s Howards End. In it, she addressed the ideas of family, love, art and dozens of other matters that humans stay up nights weeping over. The American vs English way of life is the robust novel’s major theme. Trenchant observations about academia; the pains of growing up mixed race in a mixed-up world; marital heartbreak – all its concerns are delivered with such an unflagging energy that you can’t help but feel invigorated. And what a master of dialogue! A worthy quarantine companion, uplifting without offering false comfort.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
By Junot Díaz (2007)

A confession: I knew embarrassingly little about the Dominican Republic before I read this book. But it’s the kind of work that you can fall into blind; it will have its way with you no matter how much or little you know about life under the dictator Rafael Trujjilo. Science-fiction and fantasy fan Oscar de Leon is preoccupied by thoughts of love, and a family fukú or curse. The novel weaves its narrative around its young overweight New Jersey-based Dominican protagonist in the most immersive manner, throwing generous amounts of Spanish in the mix (not a deterrent). A rollercoaster ride on the twin tracks of history and nerd culture. And oh, watch out for the trippy footnotes!

Bombay Balchão
By Jane Borges (2019)

Taking its name from a spicy Goan recipe, (the prawn balchão is one of the best things that I’ve ever eaten out of a jar), this sumptuous novel is composed of individual short stories that connect in intimate ways through interrelated characters. Borges’ characters inhabit a building in Cavel, a corner in South Mumbai that preserves the memories of a vibrant but vanishing community of Goan Catholics and their unique way of life. The author spins stories out of home-brewed wine and falling chikoos, burning churches and epistolary romances, endowing her characters with individuality and depth every step of the winding way. A book that will remind you – in the most exuberant style – that ‘This too shall pass’.

From HT Brunch, April 5, 2020

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