Our favourite fiction reads in lockdown: the books that kept us going

Katie Rosseinsky,Katie Law,Robert Dex,Nick Curtis,Jessie Thompson,Susannah Butter,Suzannah Ramsdale,Jochan Embley,Melanie McDonagh,David Ellis and Bea Tridimas
·7-min read
 (ES Composite)
(ES Composite)

As if we couldn’t have guessed, people read more books than ever during lockdown, especially fiction and crime for ‘escapism, comfort and relaxation’ according to the Publisher’s Association.

New figures show that fiction sales rose by 16 per cent from £571m to £688m in 2020, with sales of digital and audio books making up for the fall in print sales, as physical bookshops were forced to close their doors.

Now, as the bookshops open, and sales continue to pick up, our writers share which novels, old favourites and new discoveries, have kept them going...

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

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Silver Sparrow was published in the United States back in 2011, but only made it to this side of the Atlantic last year, following Tayari Jones’s Women’s Prize for Fiction win in 2019. It tells the stories of sisters Dana and Chaurisse, who share a bigamist father - one knows that her dad has another family, the other has no idea - and deserves to be as big a success as An American Marriage. Read it before US comedy queen Issa Rae adapts it for the big screen. Katie Rosseinsky

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones (Oneworld, £8.99) Buy it here

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead

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At just under 600 pages long, this sweeping saga is keeping me going, and should for a while, even as we come out of lockdown. The story of how the lives of two brilliant but flawed women - one an aviatrix who attempted to circumnavigate the globe in 1950, the other a present day Hollywood starlet beset by scandal - intersect, is effortlessly woven together. Along the way we learn of other lives and stories that just build and build. Shipstead spent seven years researching it and however tempting it is to devour it at pace, Great Circle deserves to be savoured slowly. Katie Law

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead (Doubleday, £16.99) Buy it here

Danny the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl

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I read a lot over lockdown. Crime fiction, hardbacks too heavy for commuting, and even a return to the horror fiction I read as a teenager despite too many plots revolving around deadly pandemics bringing civilisation to its knees. But the standout was Roald Dahl’s classic tale. At the height of home schooling with all its stresses and strains the three us would gather round the laptop to listen to my daughter’s teacher read a chapter or two and for 10 minutes twice a week lockdown lifted and life was all about villainous Victor Hazell and Danny and his dad’s poaching plans instead. Robert Dex

Danny the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl (Penguin, £6.99) Buy it here

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

Amazon
Amazon

Douglas Stuart’s fictionalized and curiously uplifting account of an abusive childhood with an alcoholic mother in 80s Glasgow not only won the Booker Prize, it also united my cantankerous, contrary book club in praise. It has the relentlessness of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, but is robust where that book was indulgent and its tragedy is shot through with tough humour. Stuart has been a successful fashion designer in New York: if he were never to write another book, this would suffice, although the good news is that he already has. Nick Curtis

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (Picador, £8.99) Buy it here

The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard

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There’s a war on, and everyone’s having affairs or buying fancy dresses, and saying things like ‘we’ve had our routine upset by Mr Hitler’. Elizabeth Jane Howard’s five-volume family saga was my ultimate lockdown read – I don’t know where I’d have been without it. The doorstop-size books are so evocative of hot summers in the Sussex countryside and wartime London fugginess that I forgot all about the ‘rona, and the characters became like friends – screw you, rule of six. They made me gasp more times than Line of Duty, shed a few tears, and generally made me feel like I was wrapped up in a very warm jumper. Comfort reading at its finest. Jessie Thompson

The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard (Pan Macmillan, £9.99 each) Buy it here

Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri

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This beautiful, understated novel is about a year in the life of a writer who teaches at a university. We never learn her name or where she lives but we do discover the inner workings of her mind, from every day reflections - like getting a coffee and going to the supermarket - to deeper stuff - her relationship with her parents, friends who marry impossible characters and paths not taken. Lahiri originally wrote it in Italian and translated it herself. Every word is carefully chosen and it is utterly beguiling; a complete escape into someone else’s world. Susannah Butter

Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri (Bloomsbury £14.99) Buy it here

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

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Staying up late to finish this under the duvet covers by the light of my phone made me feel like a child again. With irresistible wit and honesty, Reid’s debut offers a refreshing take on female friendship and what success means in your twenties. It makes your skin crawl with its direct dissection of privilege, class and race and had my breath competing to scream, cry and laugh all at once. Like every thoroughly enjoyable read, I was devastated that it had to come to an end. Irresistible, vital, and entertaining it was the perfect lockdown addition to my life. Bea Tridimas

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid ( Bloomsbury, £8.99) Buy it here

Springtime in a Broken Mirror by Mario Benedetti

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There are probably some vague, and quite lazy, parallels to be drawn between my own corona-enforced separations and a book about a political prisoner and his exiled family, but this novel was so wonderfully encapsulating that I completely forgot about the whole pandemic malarkey. It’s written from various perspectives — the locked-up Santiago, his increasingly estranged wife, an ailing father and a slyly observant daughter — and each voice is heartbreakingly persuasive. An exploration of family ties, resistance, and what happens when communication breaks down. Jochan Embley

Springtime in a Broken Mirror by Mario Benedetti (Penguin, £8.99) Buy it here

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

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During the height of my pandemic brain fog, when little could keep my attention, The Vanishing Half engulfed me completely. I ripped through it in just a couple of days. A clever and creative look at race and identity, Bennett’s second novel tells the story of the twin Vignes sisters. As their lives diverge, one exists as a black woman while the other has secretly passed herself off as white. I read this at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement last summer and found it such an interesting and understandable way to break down the nuances of privilege and race in an ‘oh, now I get it’ way. Poised, powerful and filled with plot twists, books this brilliant don’t come along often. Suzannah Ramsdale

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett ( Little, Brown, £8.99) Buy it here

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Piranesi by Susanna ClarkeBloomsbury
Piranesi by Susanna ClarkeBloomsbury

I loved Clarke’s first novel, the richly imaginative Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. This is as different as can be – short and elusive. It’s about an apparent simpleton who lives in great caverns by the sea, watched over by huge statues. The only other person is The Other, a man who exercises a curious dominating influence over him. What remains with you isn’t so much the plot as the image of a wild but mannered man in a world of caves, leaving flowers before great statues. Weird but haunting. Melanie McDonagh

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke ( Bloomsbury, £8.99) Buy it here

Young Skins by Colin Barrett

Young SKins by Colin BarrettVintage
Young SKins by Colin BarrettVintage

Fitting, in this homebound, soft-brained year, that I should uncover a favourite read on one of those slow Sunday afternoons slumped in front of Netflix. Up popped Calm With Horses; a beguiling but heartbreaking story of criminal life on the Irish coast, lifted from Colin Barrett’s Young Skins. My copy arrived swiftly and just as quickly I found myself in small rural towns marked as much by their bleakness as their brutality. These short tales are about struggling – with family, with friends, with booze, with scorn, rejection and the rest. Barrett writes with a clipped detachment that sometimes, dazzlingly, bursts into moments of sprinting poetry. A debut novel is apparently on the cards for this year; I can’t wait. David Ellis

Young Skins by Colin Barrett (Vintage, £8.99) Buy it here

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