Christmas is once again upon us, and not even the pandemic has managed to slow down the onslaught of Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want for Christmas is You’ or Michael Bublé’s Christmas album. There are many wonderful things about the festive period, but it can sometimes feel overwhelming and inescapable. During the holidays, so many people’s routines are uprooted and many of us find ourselves having to adapt to a different lifestyle. As we go from living with friends to back with family, the dishwasher is very much appreciated but newly developed habits such as making snacks at two in the morning are no longer socially acceptable.
Usually I enjoy diving headfirst into the festive spirit. You will often find me blasting McCartney’s ‘Wonderful Christmastime’ until my family inevitably shout at me, and watching ‘Love Actually’ and ‘The Holiday’ on repeat— films I never seem to grow tired of, even though I meticulously watch them annually. However, especially with the strangeness of this year, finding little moments of escapism and respite has felt more important than ever. Thankfully, literature has always provided wonderful interludes away from the general chaos and stress of the holidays. So, if that’s what you’re looking for, here are two novels that create such beautifully immersive worlds they are sure to provide a glorious moment of relief from the festive period.
The Secret History, Donna Tartt
For those of us who miss being surrounded by the bustling university atmosphere as things slow down for the festive season, this is the perfect choice. Set in the imaginary Hampden College, one cannot help but be swept up into the remote, snowy state of Vermont as this story follows Richard Papen down a whirlwind of intrigue, dark academia and murder. Richard moves from California, and finds himself befriending Henry, Francis, Camila, Charles and Bunny, five eccentric, secretive students studying in a highly selective Classics class under the guidance of charismatic professor Julian. The opening sentence of the prologue is arguably the most enticing one I’ve ever stumbled across:
‘The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.’
The beginning instantly draws you in, and what initially was assumed to be your average murder mystery becomes subverted. Instead the intrigue develops from what causes the murder, rather than who does it, or who is killed. A sort of classic Greek inevitability develops as you sit on the edge of your seat, devouring the pages, and all the events leading up to the murder— a string of what initially would seem like pure coincidences— suddenly feel inescapably predetermined. All you want to do is yell at the characters ambling through the pages, entirely unaware of what is about to happen to them.
Perhaps the most interesting and immersive quality of The Secret History are the characters themselves. Surprisingly none are particularly likeable; they are narcissistic, unscrupulous and extremely morally dubious to differing degrees, but they are so intricate and complex I keep finding myself returning to the novel time and time again. I keep hoping that by re-entering this snow-swept world of mystery I will finally be able to understand how their brains work, what makes them tick, what their true motives are. Donna Tartt strikes a seemingly paradoxically perfect balance, showing their questionable and amoral actions but making the readers find sparks of humanity in their flaws and develop snippets of sympathy towards them.
The Secret History has it all: murder, friendship, classics, romance, betrayal… All features that are expertly interwoven and described in such beautifully minute detail it can’t help but draw you into this secretive, exclusive world made even more realistic by a wintery yet picturesque university setting so many of us are missing.
The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver
If you are someone who is fed up of the sun disappearing by 4:30 in the afternoon and the incessant, miserable cold, this is the novel for you. Unlike Donna Tartt’s snowy setting, The Lacuna transports its readers to sunny Mexico in the 1930s, a vision of natural beauty and warmth:
‘The sun comes down through the water like flaming arrows, touching the scaly bodies and setting every fin to flame.’
This novel gracefully and intricately intertwines fiction with reality, narrating the life of made-up character Harrison Shepherd who grows up in Mexico, finds himself working for artists Frida Kahlo and Diego de Rivera, and eventually becomes a writer in America. Shepherd experiences many significant historical events throughout his lifetime, such as the assassination of Trotsky, the Bonus Army Conflict, and the fearful period of McCarthyism. Kingsolver sweeps the reader into this world of political turmoil so beautifully you find yourself perched behind Shepherd’s shoulder, watching everything unfold like a fly on the wall.
The Lacuna is a novel about someone drifting, trying to find a sense of self, in search of an identity. Shepherd poignantly struggles to fully integrate within both American or Mexican cultures due to his dual nationality, and shies away from using the first personal pronoun ‘I’ for most of the story. Kingsolver creates a deeply sympathetic and insightful character, who presents such incredibly vivid and evocative descriptions of food and warmth that, if you focus enough and ignore the dreary murky weather outside, you can almost feel the South American sunshine radiating out of the pages, and the smell of culinary wonders wafting from the text.
The Lacuna and The Secret History deal with very different subject matters, but both have the magical ability to transport their readers across continents, narratives and periods of history. Each novel is so beautifully detailed and immersive — perfect for those of us looking for moments of peace amidst the unbridled chaos the festive season.