This week internationally acclaimed playwright and award-winning novelist CRAIG HIGGINSON shares some essential books to get busy reading during the Coronavirus lockdown.
Craig Higginson's new novel The Book of Gifts (published by panmacmillan) is now out. Moving from the lush beaches of uMhlanga Rocks to the stark midwinter of Joburg and the coral reefs of Mauritius, this masterfully plotted novel is an intriguing and complex family story that explores the fault-lines between loyalty and betrayal, innocence and accountability.
Don't forget books have now been declared an essential item and are back on sale in shops, here's a list of great Joburg bookshops to visit to stock up your reading list.
The Selected Poems and Elemental Odes, written by Pablo NerudaPeople often turn to poetry in times of need. Pablo Neruda is inexhaustible and I would recommend his Selected Poems or Elemental Odes – or, if you can get it, his wonderful collection Extravagaria. He knew suffering and witnessed the worst aspects of humanity and yet he emerged with a full heart – shaping his abundant spirit into poems that sing of everyday life.
The Border Trilogy: All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, Cities on the Plain, written by Cormac McCarthy (Picador Africa)I first read these three books several years ago, but I listened to them during lockdown on Audible. McCarthy is one of the greatest living writers writing in English. These three books are also rooted in the real, and the events he describes are often violent, but his protagonists navigate their way through his fictional world with such a decency and grace that they emerge as nothing less than heroic.
It is during dark times that the eye begins to see, and Cormac McCarthy restores us to our proper scale, providing a lens through which our current situation can begin to feel manageable. We may be in peril, he tells us, but we are also full of miracle, and passing through a place of miracle, and we should look for the light because the light is all we’ve got.
Hamnet, written by Maggie O’FarrellThis book is only just becoming available in print form, but I listened to it on Audible. I loved two previous books by Maggie O’Farrell, the autobiographical I Am, I Am, I Am and This Must be the Place, which my editor suggested I read because it shares some structural similarities to my new novel, The Book of Gifts. Hamnet is a fictional account of Shakespeare’s Wife, Anne Hathaway, and their son, Hamnet, and it is set against the context of the plague. It is a timely book, and full of life, in spite of the fact that it is surrounded by death. A beautiful and very moving book.
The Plague and The Myth of Sisyphus, written by Albert CamusThe title speaks for itself. Camus wrote in the wake of Sartre’s existentialist ideas, and although he wasn’t a philosopher of Sartre’s powers, he was a much better and more complex novelist than Sartre was. Along with The Outsider, this is his best-known book and it follows all the stages a town in Algiers goes through during a plague.
If you want something by Sartre that is less on the nose but equally relevant – and more uplifting – you could try his collection The Myth of Sisyphus, which argues that even Sisyphus, the most enslaved of people, is free.
For Whom the Bell Tolls, written by Ernest HemmingwayI also listened to this on Audible recently, having read it a few years ago. This is one of Hemmingway’s best books, set during the Spanish Civil War and following the lives of a group of rebel soldiers in the mountains. It is also a love story. This is Hemmingway at his best – tender without being sentimental, tough without showing off, subtle but incredibly dramatic. Hemmingway wrote with much more honesty about the nature of courage and heroism than he is often given credit for and this book will provide you with escapism and sustenance.
In a Strange Room, written Damon GalgutI think this is South African novelist Damon Galgut’s most memorable and original book. Three shortish stories linked indirectly, this book is written in pared-down prose and is extremely moving and powerful. When we are all stuck in a familiar room, it might be good to enter a strange room. This is what good literature does. It takes us to places we have never visited before. It makes us care from places we thought we would never care from. It stretches our sense of self – and our understanding of what it is to be human. That is what this book – and all the books mentioned above – achieved for me.
CRAIG HIGGINSON is an internationally acclaimed playwright and novelist. His plays have been performed and produced in many theatres and festivals around the world. His novels include Last Summer (Picador Africa, 2010; Mercure de France, 2017), The Landscape Painter (Picador Africa, 2011), The Dream House T(Picador Africa, 2015; Mercure de France, 2016) and The White Room (Picador Africa and St Martin’s Press (ebook), 2018). Craig has won several national awards in South Africa and Britain for his writing. The Dream House is the IEB English matric setwork for South African schools (2019–2021). His latest novel is The Book of Gifts (Picador Africa, 2020).