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Feeling trapped during the COVID-19 pandemic? Here are some novels of confinement

It’s hard not to feel a little trapped as a result of social isolation measures. No matter the size of our houses or flats, it is unsettling to have our movements restricted in the way they have been in recent months.

The sense of captivity got me thinking about books in which the character is trapped in some way. Here are a few that were top of mind for me. The situations these characters find themselves are infinitely worse than a spending time in the comfort of our homes, but there is a familiar sense of freedom curtailed.

Are there any that jump to mind for you?

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

The protagonist in The Mars Room, Romy was not just trapped when she enters the legal system and is imprisoned in the Stanville Women’s Correctional Centre. It began much earlier, when she lived in poverty in San Francisco, and was trying to get by.

However, a new style of imprisonment began after she killed her stalker and was sentenced to life at the Stanville Women’s Correctional Centre. Interestingly, apart from Romy’s inability to see her son while she is in jail, her life does not seem markedly worse than when she was struggling to make ends meet, working in a strip club. And that is not to say that life in prison is easy for her.

While you might feel irritated with the way your partner leaves the cupboard doors open, rest assured that your housemate is far less complicated and alarming.

Room by Emma Donoghue

The claustrophobia is palpable in Emma Donoghue’s novel about a mother and son who are trapped in an underground lair by a rapist and kidnapper. It is hard to forget the mother’s attempts to create some degree of normality within the four walls within which the two live, through obstacle courses and other physical activities that also help fill the long days.

Perhaps an extreme version of trying to home school a family of energetic kids?

The most striking and heart-stopping section of the novel, for me, was the son’s attempted escape, and those moments when he was trapped within a rolled carpet.

The Collector by John Fowles

I remember reading The Collector in school, and I found it absolutely terrifying. The idea of being trapped in the damp basement of some maniac was enough to give me a lifelong aversion to awkward and nature loving men. God forbid they expressed an interest in entomology.

However, after a few weeks of home schooling, this situation might seem a lot more appealing – at least Miranda gets some peace and quiet while trapped in Frederick Clegg’s cellar. That is, until the chilling ending.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

Okay, okay, I know I am drawing a very long bow by likening our current situation to that faced by prisoners of war, but I couldn’t look past war novels when looking for examples of people who have suffered confinement.

This harrowing account of the experience of prisoners of war does not hold back in revealing the terrible reality of disease, violence and suffering that those forced to work on the construction of the Burma Railway.

There is an enormous sense of relief at the end, when the prisoners are freed.

The Watch Tower by Elizabeth Harrower

The prospect of being trapped within a bad marriage might be more banal than being kidnapped or a prisoner of war, but it is nonetheless frightening in its own way. In The Watch Tower, it is not one woman, but two sisters who become trapped when they abandoned by their mother after their father dies. One sister, Laura, leaves her studies and her ambitions to wed her boss, who tyrannises the sisters. They have no option but to tolerate his cruelty. It is a story of domestic enslavement that is as difficult to break free from as any other kind of entrapment in the Sydney of the 1940 in which The Watch Tower is set.

Reading about a relationship like this one is enough to make the petty annoyances of spending day in, day out with a mildly irritating partner more bearable.

Dark Places by Kate Grenville

The story of a child trapped in a cruel and harsh household is nothing new in literature. It is the early lives of Jane Eyre, it is Roald Dahl’s Matilda, and it is even the experience of Harry Potter. It is central to the story of The Man Who Loved Children.

In Dark Places, Kate Grenville creates a husband and father, Albion Gidley Singer, who would be pitiful were he not so terrifying. Albion’s own fears and insecurities drive him to make life a misery for his wife and daughter.

Dark Places might be written from the perspective of the captor, but it is hard not to be drawn to and empathise with the captives in his life.

Again, the dreadfulness of Albion might make readers look more favourably upon your own fellow captives.




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