This Holiday’s Silver Lining
I’ve found a silver lining to the pandemic cloud this Christmas, and it isn’t Zoom pie-baking sessions or virtual caroling. It’s books. Or to put it another way, the time to read books.
As the fictional publisher in my novel Paris Never Leaves You says, “There’s a book for everyone on your holiday list.” Perhaps that why more books pile up on my night table at Christmas than at any other time of the year. When I walk into a bookshop to find gifts, I invariably end up treating myself to one or two volumes. Then there are the books friends and relatives are kind enough to give me. The stack builds, delicious, inviting, within physical reach, but elusive, because, let’s face it, who has time to read during the frantic holiday season?
This Christmas, however, will give the gift of leisure to enjoy and savor. With a book in my hands, I will be socially distanced but not isolated or lonely. I will travel to distant countries and eras, meet characters familiar and exotic, inhabit other minds, fall in love, tremble with fear, and have my heart broken and my hope renewed.
Here are some of the books I’m looking forward to curling up with this holiday season.
Set during an icy Christmas in Ireland, Snow by John Banville is a classic chilling whodunit on the surface and beneath it a shattering portrait of a corrupt society frozen in time. The razor-sharp prose and vividly drawn characters take a scalpel to the religious and class distinctions of a world beginning to splinter.
The Boy in the Field by Margot Livesey is a dazzling exploration, at once tender and unsettling, of the repercussions of a single incident, the discovery by three teenagers of an assaulted boy lying bleeding and abandoned in a field. Their experience radiates through the community, exposing lies, plumbing truths, stripping adults of their facades, and wrenching the three children through individual quests and discoveries into adulthood. The story also features one of the most winning dogs in recent fiction.
Since Christmas is a magical season, what better novel for the holiday than Here We Are by Graham Swift, a tale of a magician, a magician’s assistant, and the master of ceremonies in old fashioned music hall entertainment on the pier in Brighten, England. Starting in 1959 and stretching back to World War II and ahead for half a century, this slim volume is large with wit, compassion, and the tricks and illusions life plays on us and we play on one another, and ourselves.
The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante foregoes magic and takes the reader into the gritty reality of Naples as experienced by a young girl struggling to become a woman and forge her own values in a hypocritical world. Stunning, psychologically acute, the novel somehow manages to celebrate beauty and, more important, hope in the midst of pain and despair.
I still remember the thrill of discovering the early United Nations stories of Shirley Hazzard, so I’m delighted to find that there will be a new volume of The Collected Stories by Shirley Hazzard out in time for the holidays. These will include the later stories, with which I am less familiar, and the earlier ones that are at once devastatingly witty, scathing, heartbreaking, and ultimately buoyant as only the most accomplished short stories can be.
And finally, this holiday I will reread the ultimate, for me, Christmas story – not Dickens, but James Joyce’s The Dead. As in Snow, Ireland lies under a shroud of white, but the real chill comes from the mounting tension beneath an annual party. In this tale it is not the frozen veneer of society that cracks but the illusions of the human heart.
I wish you all the joys of the season and the infinite delights of reading.