From sorcerers to samurai: best books to transport you to other worlds

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa takes us back to medieval Japan, Robert Macfarlane journeys deep underground … author Tade Thompson shares his favourites

It may not be the apocalypse we anticipated, but even in a dystopia of handwashing, social distancing and coughing into the elbow, there are always books. After we return from scavenging in the wasteland of civilisation, we can still range far and wide in the world of imagination.

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa takes us back to medieval Japan in Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories. Published in a brief flowering after the outbreak of the first world war in 1914, these short stories remain as arresting and disturbing as ever. Two of the tales, “Rashōmon” and “In a Bamboo Grove”, spawned a film by Akira Kurosawa with a series of contradictory narrators that brought a fresh approach to cinema. Stories such as “Loyalty” tackle the ideas of honour and duty in the samurai code head on, but many of them have moral subtexts. “The Nose” and “Dragon” can both be read as a critique of religious leaders eschewing the spiritual for the physical. While the earlier stories are more conventionally striking in terms of voice and structure, the later, autobiographical tales reflect the writer’s steady disintegration into mental illness.

Unreliable narration is at the heart of Catriona Ward’s Little Eve, a beautifully rendered folk horror tale that is deeply unsettling. This story of nebulous cults, murders and obfuscation in the Scottish Highlands is all realised in language that is effective and affecting. The delirious, dreamlike prose is underpinned by a tight control of material with the details of early 20th-century life layered in like a foundation – unobtrusive, yet grounding the tale.

Van Gogh
Did Vincent van Gogh cut his whole ear off or just a lobe? Bernadette Murphy investigates in Van Gogh’s Ear. Photograph: The Courtauld Gallery/PA

We all know the story: artist meets girl, artist falls in love with girl, artist proves love by cutting off his own ear. While Akutagawa takes you away to Japan, and Ward takes you back to the 1920s, Bernadette Murphy takes you down an intellectual rabbit hole in Van Gogh’s Ear. This detailed investigation of the painter’s crisis is as compelling as a detective story in its trawl through the archives to resolve inconsistencies in the contemporary accounts. Did Vincent van Gogh cut his whole ear off or just a lobe? Why was the artist Paul Gauguin arrested for murder? And is there a secret hiding under the dressings in Van Gogh’s 1889 Self-Portrait With Bandaged Ear?

Zen Cho offers another route to escape in Sorcerer to the Crown, where Regency romance meets fantasy magic. England’s new Sorcerer Royal is a man of African descent called Zacharias Wythe, and his first job is to find out why English magic seems to be on the wane. But the old establishment doesn’t want a “former slave” at the head of the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, and Wythe has to work under the constant threat of being replaced. Meanwhile, Prunella Gentleman is breaking with the conventions that compel young ladies with magical talent to eradicate their abilities. Funny and farcical, this novel is a delight that provides much-needed brightness in these difficult times.

Robert Macfarlane takes us on an evocative journey through the dark spaces of the underworld in Underland, a poetic, sometimes psychedelic exploration of the planet we live on that travels through geology, myth and history. Danger and death lurk in this exploration of time and place, as well as the beauty of Macfarlane’s lush prose. This is a book you can get lost in – a perfect way to escape the quarantine and be back in time for supper.

  • Tade Thompson’s Making Wolf is published by Little, Brown.

Tade Thompson

The GuardianTramp

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