Two weeks have passed here in Berlin since the city more or less shut down. As with other places, there were warning signs. People wearing face masks in the supermarket. Bus drivers locking the front door as they were no longer handling coins. My son’s hands starting to peel from constant washing at school. And finally, non-essential services closed and we were told to stay home.
For the first week I monitored the spread of the virus, flitting between social media and news sites until my bloodshot eyes spun in my head. I was trying to get my head around the story, to click on links until I found something that made me feel better. But as I watched the stressed faces of politicians and saw videos of people fighting over groceries, it was clear that no one knew what to do, and that heightened anxiety was making people turn on each other.
‘This is crazy!’ my neighbour said when I bumped into her in the stairwell. ‘Crazy!’
And then, during one of my late-night rampages across the internet, I listened to a doctor talk about impact of fear on mental health. I realised that it’s unsustainable to live on adrenalin, lukewarm coffee and news reports, and doing so can make things harder for our health workers.
Right now they need us to stay home and remain calm. This will mean we don’t take up their time with the strange ailments that too much googling can produce, like the finger tingling and extreme fatigue that overcame me after reading a particularly vivid coronavirus story that mentioned those symptoms. (I won’t link it.) It means managing our own mental health so we can help others, because social distancing will be much harder on some than others.
This story is too fast-moving to understand it as it happens. I don’t need to study every graph, memorise every symptom, track every rise in numbers. I do need to stay home, wash my hands, keep in touch with people and hold my nerve, so that when it’s over (and it will be over) I can get moving again.
So last week I started rationing my news intake and sending myself to bed early with a book. Reading helps. Stories have structure, there is an invisible author guiding you through, you might not know what the ending is, but you know it’s coming. For those of us who have the relatively easy job of staying out of sight and trying to keep The Fear at bay, here are some ideas.
Short stories are good for patchy concentration spans. I’ve been losing myself in H.C. Gilfind’s The Worry Front and Well-behaved Women by Emily Paull, both published here at Margaret River Press. I also recommend In This Desert, There Were Seeds, a treasure chest of stories by new and established writers from Perth and Singapore. And I often return to the collected stories of Flannery O’Connor, Alice Walker, Alice Munro and Gillian Mears.
You get a little longer in an imaginary world with a novella, but you can still read it in a quiet hour or two. I love Julia Leigh’s Disquiet, Marguerite Duras’s The Lover and, more recently, Joan Smokes by Angela Meyer. Set in rural France, Vietnam and Las Vegas respectively, these novellas are portals into other places and lives. So welcome right now.
The world feels like it has changed overnight, and it’s a relief to pick up a book and travel back to a time when everything felt less fraught. I’m thinking of Louise Allan’s The Sisters’ Song, about two sisters in Tasmania through the 1900s, Albert Facey’s classic West Australian memoir A Fortunate Life, and Laurie Steed’s You Belong Here, which brings to life 1980s Perth. Same goes for old music, favourite films—whatever helps.
As a teenager reading was my outlet, a way of seeing the world when my daily life was mostly limited to school, home and my job at Chicken Treat. In a way, social distancing is like being a teenager again—we’re shut up in our rooms and dreaming of liberation. Maybe that’s why I’ve been re-reading my old Lois Duncan novels. She is a prolific American writer who created wonderfully creepy stories with level-headed teenage protagonists in the most unsettling situations. There is a kind of reprieve in their familiar three-part structure, where a happy ending always follows rising panic.
Another book I’ve started is A Woman In Berlin, which I bought on my last trip into the city. It was written by an anonymous young woman as she hides in basements and scavenges for food in the dying days of World War II.
‘What else can I do?’ she writes. ‘I have to sit it out and wait. These are strange times—history experienced first hand, the stuff of tales yet untold and songs unsung. But up close, history is much more troublesome— nothing but burdens and fears.’
The burdens and fears for many are money and housing right now. And that is another way that reading can help—we can pay writers and booksellers so they are still here when we emerge from hiding. Many small publishers and bookshops are offering home delivery as authors release books into the world without launches—support them if you can.
These are all just ideas, books that have worked for me. Right now feels like a good time to read whatever we want, casting book snobbery aside for good. We’re living through something tragic, frightening and difficult. Whatever makes you want to go to bed early, whatever stills your mind, whatever takes you somewhere happier: read that.
Zoe Deleuil is a writer from Perth, currently living in Berlin. In 2018 she was shortlisted for our short story competition and published in the anthology, Pigface and Other Stories. Her debut novel, The Night Village, will be published by Fremantle Press in 2021.