8 Novels About the Masks We Wear
In times of crisis, we surprise even ourselves with what we can transform into
The idea for my debut novel, The Down Days (a magical realist whodunit set in quarantined Cape Town), came about after chancing upon an exhibition at a medical history museum about the effects of epidemics on the history and culture of South Africa. The idea that Cape Town was so profoundly changed and shaped by disease struck a chord. Like the fact that, if it hadn’t been for scurvy, the city would have never been colonized as a pit stop between East and West.
While researching the history of disease (in South Africa and across the globe) further, three things stood out for me: Firstly, how misinformation spreads like wildfire during epidemics. Secondly, how nations throughout history have repeatedly used epidemics as excuses to feed existing prejudices. And thirdly, how periods of great upheaval, when normal rules no longer seem to apply, give ordinary people the chance to shed their skins (for better or for worse). In a way, I think, we are all Russian dolls composed of layers of masks that hide us from ourselves and others, that protect us, remake us, absolve us. In times of crisis, we surprise even ourselves to see what we can transform into.
The characters in my novel, apart from finding themselves in a situation where they are physically forced to wear masks in public, all take on new identities, new masks to navigate a post-pandemic world. Masks to survive, to hide from their pasts, from the truth and also from their grief.
One could argue that most novels are about masks in some way. And that the best books allow their readers a chance to put on new masks or skins and be transformed.
Swamplandia by Karen Russell
A family of alligator wrestlers run a gator-themed island theme park in the Florida Everglades. When the matriarch and star of the show dies, the family starts to unravel. A magical realist coming-of-age tale about the lies and myths we tell ourselves and our families for love and what happens when these masks/myths become undone. It’s also about the masks we put on to hide from our grief and the ones we cling to to insulate ourselves from the realities of the outside world.
The Zulus of New York by Zakes Mda
Two sideshow acts fall in love in 1800s America. Inspired by the true history of “Farini’s Friendly Zulus,” this is the story of a South African Zulu man, exiled from his tribe, who travels to the West where he makes a living performing as a Zulu in a sideshow act. As he spends his days wearing and acting out the masks society has created for him, he is continually getting reminded that the audience doesn’t want to know who he really is, that they just want spectacle. Mda manages to get a book about terrible historical injustices and the trauma of being regarded as less than human to ring with hope and magic and the triumph of the human spirit over adversity.
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
A man without a face falls from the sky wearing a helmet of flames, and then both literally and figuratively sheds his skin. Can we abandon the masks of race, nation, and class we are born with and become something new? Ondaatje’s Booker Prize-winning novel is about all this and then some. Novelist Kamila Shamsie calls it “that rare novel which gets under your skin and insists you return to it time and again, always yielding a new surprise or delight.”
Truth is stranger than fiction in this memoir of a Brooklyn travel writer who returns to Zimbabwe to rescue his ageing parents from violence/ruin during the land invasion upheavals in 2002 only to discover that his parents are much more resilient than he thought – having turned their backpackers into a brothel (complete with a pot plantation). This is a book about resilience in times of strife. How we change and adapt and renew ourselves when necessity calls for it. About the everyday heroism of surviving in interesting times. And the ability to laugh at the absurdities of life.
Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
In this novel, the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for fiction winner, a young Jewish escape artist smuggles himself out of Nazi-invaded Prague and lands up with his Brooklyn cousin in New York City where they grow up to create a comic book empire, featuring a masked superhero, The Escapist. It’s about the masks we dream up to help us escape (from war, from ourselves, from the masks society expects us to wear). And it’s about finally finding the courage needed to break free.
The City & The City by China Miéville
A detective has to see the unseen in this metaphysical murder mystery set in a post-Soviet style world where two cities exist in the same space at the same time. Citizens can see each other but are forbidden to look. When a murdered woman ends up on the wrong side of the border, the mask that the detective has been forced to wear since birth has to slip.
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
In this classic Nobel Prize-winning novel, Kazuo Ishiguro creates a character for whom it’s a point of pride never to let his mask slip and admit the truth of his own emotions, even to himself. In the summer of 1956, an ageing butler goes on a motoring holiday to visit an old colleague. The journey becomes a chance to reflect on his past and the mistakes he made throughout his long career in servitude. Ishiguro slowly peels back the layers of masks the protagonist has been wearing to protect himself from hard truths.
It by Stephen King
The mask of small town America (with something sinister lurking underneath the surface) has been a favorite theme for horror writers for decades, and Stephen King is a master of the trope. In this classic, the small town of Derry is terrorized by a supernatural being in a clown skin. But the seemingly bucolic town itself hides many evils, from prejudice and indifference (there are many scenes in which good people look the other way) to violence.