The Outsiders is thought to be one of the first novels written specifically for young adults. The coming of age novel explores the class divide between the rival Greasers and Socs gangs in the American South in the mid-1960s.
The book’s challenging and emotive representations of inequality, violence, crises of conscience, and the powerful love of family and friends, make it an enduring standout for young readers. The first-person narration constructs intimacy between the reader and our protagonist, Ponyboy Curtis, as he approaches an increasingly uncertain future.
Hinton started the book at 15, finished it at 16, and it was published when she was 18. It is said she wrote the book because it was the sort of book she herself wanted to read.
In a year when many young people have experienced isolation and separation, Ponyboy’s wisdoms should resonate powerfully:
It seemed funny to me that the sunset she saw from her patio and the one I saw from the back steps was the same one. Maybe the two different worlds we lived in weren’t so different. We saw the same sunset.
Crazy Brave recalls her early life from birth to her early 20s. The story is abstract and non-linear in structure, making the memoir unpredictable, which destabilises the reader’s experience.
Harjo’s memoir is confronting and, at times, graphic. But her spiritual connections, and trust of her own “knowing” (instinct, or inner vision) will inspire readers keen to escape problematic right or wrong, or black and white perceptions of experience. As Harjo astutely observes:
In the end, we must each tend to our own gulfs of sadness, though others can assist us with kindness, food, good words, and music. Our human tendency is to fill these holes with distractions like shopping and fast romance, or with drugs and alcohol.
28-year-old Tu’s debut novel presents 22-year-old violinist child prodigy Jena Chung. We follow Jena’s sense of alienation and detachment as she attempts to find meaning in the world.
Lonely Girl is not a fun read, but it is a timely one. We need to see more Asian-Australia women’s voices in literature because of the important provocations they make about race and misogyny in Australia. Tu wanted this novel to be a conversation starter and it certainly is.
Tu’s is a powerful intervention young readers will appreciate. It is a book about making bad choices while feeling so much pressure to be “good”:
I throw myself into things, expecting always to get what I want. And I always get what I want. Now it feels like I’ve failed all over again. Only this time there’s no motivation behind it. I’ve just failed myself, and it hurts in a strange, unfamiliar way. The wound is deeper than anything I’ve ever felt.
This novel contains graphic representations of sex. It is recommended for readers 17 and over.
This is a wonderfully compassionate book about living with anxiety caused by our 20-something protagonist Caitlin’s fear of death. The Morbids explores the value of friendship and romance amid youthful fears and phobias.
Ramsey’s debut novel is a difficult read. The style of the novel (fragmented, sometimes repetitive language) attempts to bring the reader closer to the experience of mental illness. But the characterisations are warm and the moral is ultimately hopeful.
It’s a book about therapy and letting people in when it is the last thing you feel like you can do, because “Sometimes you need to give up on death … to have the time of your life”.
Love, Creekwood is a short epistolary romance novella (the story is narrated via the characters’ emails to each other). It is “part 3.5” in the series and functions as an epilogue.
Love, Creekwood follows the characters to college and we follow the progression of two same-sex relationships. The book explores the challenges of being too close and too far away from a partner. It explores the mental health struggles often triggered by loneliness and fear.
Love, Creekwood is a light-hearted but genuine representation of what the first year of university can feel like.
As Simon explains:
When we say we want to freeze time, what we mean is that we want to control our memories. We want to choose which moments we’ll keep forever. We want to guarantee the best ones won’t slip away from us somehow. So when something beautiful happens, there’s this impulse to press pause and save the game. We want to make sure we can find our way back to that moment.
Albertalli is donating all proceeds from the sale of this novella to The Trevor Project, an organisation committed to crisis and suicide prevention for LGBTQIA youth.
Since the start of lockdown, more of us have taken to our bicycles, grown our own vegetables and baked our own bread. So it’s not surprising it has been suggested we should use this experience to rethink our approach to the climate crisis.
Reading some environmental literature – sometimes called “eco-literature” – can also give us the opportunity to think about the world around us in different ways.
Eco-literature, has a long literary tradition that dates back to the writings of 19th-century English romantic poets and US authors. And the growing awareness of climate change has accelerated the development of environmental writings.
Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People, looks at the Bhopal gas explosion in India – one of the most horrific environmental disasters of the 20th-century. A poisonous gas leak from a US-owned pesticide plant killed several thousand people and injured more than half a million.
The main character in the novel, Animal, is a 19-year-old orphaned boy who survives the explosion with a deformed body. This means he must “crawl like a dog on all fours”. Animal does not hate his body, but embraces his animistic identity – offering an unconventional non-human perspective.
With this wounded “human-animal” figure, Sinha puts forward his critique of India’s postcolonial conditions and demonstrates how Western capitalist domination continues to damage people and the environment in contemporary postcolonial society.
Ruth Ozeki’s novel intermingles themes such as motherhood, environmental justice and ecological practice to explore the appalling use of growth hormones in the US meat industry from a feminist ecocritical perspective.
The novel employs a “documentary” narrative mode and begins with a TV cooking show – sponsored by a meat company. While filming the show, Jane Takagi-Little, the director, encounters a vegetarian lesbian couple who reveal the ugly truth about the use of growth hormones within the livestock industry. The encounter motivates Jane to undertake a documentary project to uncover how growth hormones poison women’s bodies.
Through a deliberate choice to make all her main characters female, Ozeki draws her readers’ attention to nonconforming, atypical female figures who rebel against social or cultural norms inherent in patriarchal capitalist society.
Praised as one of the South African postcolonial canons, the novel explores complex issues of white supremacy and anticolonial resistance as well as racial and gender violence. It ties these issues with humans’ domination and exploitation of the animals and further challenges our ethical position.
The combination of these two acts – the killing of dogs and the rape of a woman – can be read as Coetzee’s ecocritique of the colonial violence against nonhuman beings and the natural environment.
Climate fiction or the so-called “cli-fi” takes on genuine scientific discovery or phenomenon and combines this with a dystopian or over the top twist. This approach underlines the agency of non-human beings, environments or even phenomena – such as trees, the ocean, or a tsunami.
Wu Ming-yi’s novel is composed of four different narratives: a Taiwanese university professor, a boy from the mythical Wayo Wayo island and two other city-dwelling indigenous characters. Their stories are viewed in fragments from the multiple perspectives of the “compound eyes”. At the backdrop is a tsunami which causes the Great Pacific garbage patch to crash on to the eastern coast of Taiwan and the fictionalised Pacific island of Wayo Wayo that brings together all their stories.
Wu blends this unrealistic event with the real-life trash vortex to draw our attention to the severe environmental problems of waste dumping and our unsustainable lifestyles.
The Overstory is praised by critics for its ambition to bring awareness to the life of trees and its advocacy to an ecocentric way of life. Powers’ novel sets out with nine distinctive characters – which represent the “roots” of trees. Gradually their stories and lives intertwine to form the “trunk”, the “crown” and the “seeds”.
One of the characters, Dr Patricia Westerford, publishes a paper showing trees are social beings because they can communicate and warn each other when a foreign intrusion occurs. Her idea, though presented as controversial in the novel, is actually well supported by today’s scientific studies.
Despite her groundbreaking work, Dr Westerford ends up taking her own life by drinking poisonous tree extracts at a conference – to make it clear humans can only save trees and the planet by ceasing to exist.
COVID-19 is changing the way we live. Panic buying, goods shortages, lockdown – these are new experiences for most of us. But it’s standard fare for the protagonists of young adult (YA) post-disaster novels.
In Davina Bell’s latest book, The End of the World Is Bigger than Love (2020), a global pandemic, cyberterrorism and climate change are interrelated disasters that have destroyed the world as we know it.
Like most post-disaster novels, the book is more concerned with how we survive rather than understanding the causes of disaster. As such, we can read it to explore our fears, human responses to disaster and our capacity to adapt.
The day after
Kelly Devos’s Day Zero (2019), and the soon to be released Day One (2020), use cyberterrorism as the disaster. Like Bell’s novel, Day Zero focuses more on how the protagonist, Jinx, maintains her humanity when she must harm or kill others in order to keep herself and her siblings alive.
A form of speculative fiction, YA post-disaster writing imaginatively explores causes and responses to apocalyptic disasters. (Some readers categorise YA juggernaut The Hunger Games – and the recently released prequel – as dystopian rather than post-disaster – others think it’s both.)
Many YA novels in this genre explore issues of survival and humanity following a catastrophe. In YA post-disaster novels, teenage protagonists must learn to exist in a fractured world with little support from elders.
When they are explained, the fictional causes of catastrophe can illustrate social concerns of times they were written in. Because of this, YA post-disaster books allow us to reflect on our current beliefs, attitudes and fears.
Davos’s Day Zero can be read as commenting on contemporary concerns about cyberterrorism and political corruption. Bell’s The End of the World Is Bigger than Love expresses similar anxieties, but is also prescient given the current pandemic.
A latent xenophobia is also present in Claire Zorn’s, The Sky So Heavy (2013), in part because the nuclear disasters are attributed to “regions in the north of Asia”. Passive ideologies of racism that pervade some YA post-disaster novels are problematic, as are other underlying ideals that promote any form of discrimination.
Literary texts that reinforce fear about Asia, particularly China, are especially problematic in the context of coronavirus, which reportedly saw an increase in racist attacks.
Panic buying and the stockpiling of goods during the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak established an “us against them” dichotomy in our “struggle to survive”, reminiscent of YA post-disaster fiction.
Not everyone hoarded food and items for themselves though. Others showed compassion, donating toilet paper and food to those in need. Because of this, we were confronted with questions about how we want to survive.
YA post-disaster novels allow us to explore similar questions of humanity. In these fictional worlds, teenage characters are faced with moral dilemmas about who to help and who to harm. How does someone look out for themselves while still expressing empathy and consideration for others? How can characters maintain their humanity if their survival means another’s suffering or death?
Who to save
Tied up with the question about how we survive, then, is who survives. The protagonist, Jinx, in Day Zero is continually faced with this dilemma. As she flees the corrupt government, Jinx must decide who to help, and how.
While Jinx readily uses violence to overcome her aggressors, she eventually must shoot to kill to save her stepsister. Doing so, Jinx loses a part of herself and becomes “something else”; she must now reconcile her actions with her sense of self.
It’s not so far from the choices medical professionals in Italy, the United States and elsewhere have had to make about who to treat due to limited ventilators and a rapid influx of patients.
No matter the cause of catastrophe, the literary exploration of questions of survival provides opportunities for teenagers, parents and teachers to discuss a range of contemporary issues, including humane responses to disaster.
Given the current crisis we are in, perhaps it is time to critically read more YA post-disaster novels. If they hold up a mirror to our current attitudes and behaviours, they can help us reflect on our humanity, and on what and who we think matters.
For those looking from the global North, African literature is often marketed in a narrow way, comprising worthy stories of resistance, written in an uplifting and sober realist mode. Seen from the continent itself, this view has long been brushed aside by the effervescence and animation of ongoing literary experimentation and creativity. I approached literary academic colleagues from South Africa, Kenya and Uganda to choose – and share their thoughts on – one of their favourite books of African fiction. The resulting finger-on-the-pulse list offers a bookshelf that speaks to the vibrancy of both contemporary and older African literature. – Isabel Hofmeyr
Waiting by Goretti Kyomuhendo
Susan Kiguli, Makerere University
The 2007 novel is set in the time of the war to get rid of the dictator Idi Amin. The main character, the adolescent Alinda, and her family have to hide from fleeing soldiers. It is an atmosphere of great angst and fear tinged with hope for the arrival of the liberators, who are a merged force of Ugandan exiles and Tanzanian soldiers. This short novel ingeniously handles the matter of the Lendu woman, the Indians and the Tanzanian soldiers with a blend of suspicion and optimism for the unknown and mystique suggested by foreigners.
The narrative thinks through the gaps and anxiety created by war, where ordinary citizens do not know what to expect. It describes the violence, victims and loss that come with lying in the path of fleeing soldiers and pursuing liberators. The setting is a village near Lake Albert at the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
This is a novel depicting a situation of post-independence internal and cross-border conflict. It is a worthy read particularly because it resonates with this time when the world is tense under the weight of a marauding pandemic.
I used to think war meant violent clashes between human beings, but since the arrival of the coronavirus I think it includes human beings confronting disease.
The Wormwood Trilogy by Tade Thompson
Nedine Moonsamy, University of Pretoria
Tade Thompson’s The Wormwood Trilogy (Rosewater, The Rosewater Insurrection, The Rosewater Redemption) has been widely acclaimed. It was recently nominated for the 2020 Hugo Award for Best Series. For African readers, it is a watershed moment, marking the arrival of an African science fiction trilogy that we so needed and deserve. Set in the near future, these novels capture the interaction between an invading alien population, the Homians, and the citizens of Nigeria.
All three books hit the sweet spot between exploring what science fiction means to us – who, as the characters often point out, have been historically subjected to alien invasions – and the pleasure of simply imbibing well-written and pacy genre fiction.
Teeming with alien life, Wormwood is an extra-terrestrial biodome that embeds itself in Nigerian soil. Its sprawling tentacles provide organic power and, contrary to what one might imagine, people flock to the surrounding community of Rosewood because Wormwood also performs ritualistic acts of healing on sick human bodies.
In contrast to greater Nigeria, where power outages are still frequent and homosexuality illegal, Rosewood has all the makings of an African techno-utopia. Yet at the heart of the trilogy is the niggling question about whether it is ever possible for humans and aliens to co-exist with symbiotic ease.
The novels make use of sharp-witted, hard-boiled detectives to probe further into alien motives; Thompson’s female characters, in particular, are a testament to his talent as they bristle with an unsentimental brand of Nigerian humour. Getting to know these characters makes reading the trilogy rewarding in itself, but Thompson’s world building is a force to be reckoned with. The interweaving of chaotic Nigerian streets, alongside organic extra-terrestrialism and imagined human technologies, is handled skilfully, allowing readers to delve into a seamless African biopunk universe that makes us marvel at the potential of what is to come.
A General Theory of Oblivion by Jose Eduardo Agualusa
Grace A Musila, University of the Witwatersrand
On the eve of Angola’s independence in 1975, Portuguese expatriate Ludovica Fernandes Mano goes into isolation in her penthouse apartment in the city of Luanda, out of fear of the post-independence future. She seals off her apartment with bricks, withdrawing into a new life with her dog and her garden on the terrace, which keeps her fed. Her only connection to the outside world – which soon descends to a 27-year civil war – is her radio.
Angolan novelist Jose Eduardo Agualusa’s A General Theory of Oblivion is a riveting tapestry of history, detective fiction and poetic interludes, interwoven with poignant turns of phrase and absurdities delivered with a straight-faced candour. It is a perfect lockdown read, not because it is about isolation, but because Ludo’s self-isolation is filled with hilariously narrated encounters and adventures, including a trained messenger pigeon that keeps two young lovers in contact. Ludo uses small pieces of diamond to trap pigeons for food; but when her trap delivers a messenger pigeon with a note attached to its leg, Ludo decides to set it free so the lovers might receive their message – and with it, her swallowed diamonds.
Ludo spends her time writing out her reflections initially in notebooks, and later the walls of her apartment, using charcoal. We get to read excerpts of her poetic reflections; from whose philosophical musings the novel draws its title.
Her encounter with the messenger pigeon draws an intricate network of the world she has withdrawn from, into her sanctuary, eventually ending her 30-year isolation when a young burglar accidentally discovers her and forms a bond with the now elderly lady.
The novel is a patchwork of short, interconnected stories. They weave a web of connected lives which lend it an expansive and colourful range, through short, pacy, thriller-style chapters, interspersed with Ludo’s poetic reflections. This is a book you read when you want to be surprised, and to have your imagination stretched by startling turns of phrase, odd logic and lyrical philosophical observations about life.
Warm, occasionally absurd, humour renders the inevitable tropes of war-time – torture, executions and profiteering – bearable. Part of the novel’s charm lies in its eccentric characters, like the self-fashioned “collector of disappearances” who tracks disappearances of planes off air spaces, as well as more ordinary disappearances, such as the journalist who apparently vanished right before people’s eyes.
This 2015 novel is a stunning canvas of the historical devastation of the Angolan civil war and richly imagined textures of ordinary people’s everyday worlds told with great warmth and inventiveness.
Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
Sam Naidu, Rhodes University
At a time when the world is experiencing unprecedented restrictions to mobility, Freshwater offers a searing and illuminating narrative about various kinds of border-crossing and about being multiply-located. In this unusual, at times shocking, bildungsroman, Emezi’s protagonist, Ada, is the child of a Nigerian father and a Malaysian mother. From early childhood, and then increasingly as she approaches adulthood, it is clear that Ada exists in a liminal zone: between spirit and human worlds; between cultures and nations; and between sexualities and genders. In retrospect, the novel’s dedication, to
… those of us with one foot on the other side,
that is, to those who do not claim one single affiliation, but both or many, is economically apposite. This liminality is portrayed with astonishing vividness and through varying perspectives, often drawing on traditional Igbo mythology and cosmology to create imagery which is unsettling and challenging.
As an “African” novel, 2018’s Freshwater is innovative and irreverent in the way it marries African religious and cultural beliefs with “Western” geography, religious iconography and cultural symbols, ultimately defying literary categorisation, just as its protagonist repudiates predetermined categories of identity. (The novel is set in Nigeria and the US, and it deliberately presents Ada as a hybrid, transnational character.)
It also contains a rare combination of sensuous, brute physicality with the spiritual. By the end, it is clear that Ada cannot be claimed by her homeland or her diasporic home as she transcends even the human-spirit border to become something which is indefinable, “as liminal as is possible – spirit and human, both and neither”. This bold, contemporary novel captures the porousness of borders, which may prove disquieting for the reader, but also very liberating. In these times of lockdown, Freshwater transports the reader boldly to unexplored, uncanny territory.
The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell
Sarah Nuttall, University of the Witwatersrand
I recommend Namwali Serpell’s 2019 Zambian tour de force The Old Drift. This is a long book – all 563 pages of it – by a writer whose prose and outsize imagination will hold you spellbound throughout. It’s a postcolonial family saga across three families and three generations. It is also the story of the great Zambezi river, and its capaciousness, capriciousness and capacity for revenge in the face of human-centred attempts to control it.
Serpell unfolds her canvas along two trace-lines of Zambian modernity: the building of the Kariba Dam, the biggest man-made dam in the world at the time of its construction; and Edward Nkoloso’s Zambian National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy and his attempts to send the first Afronauts to the moon. The novel is grounded in precisely rendered historical events but also has a partially speculative sweep. Its final scenes take place in 2023, with a smart techno-twist. The story is narrated not just from a human perspective but from that of a mosquito swarm, a “bare ruinous choir, a chorus of gossipy mites”.
This is a book that asks for your time – and now you’ve got it. Read. And be riotously rewarded.
Hunger Eats a Man by Nkosinathi Sithole
Manosa Nthunya, University of Pretoria
It may as well be the case that at this very trying historical time, it may be difficult to appreciate the offerings of fiction. After all, on a daily basis, we are being asked to read and reread the world, asking ourselves if the catastrophe that has befallen us will pass. What comfort, then, can fiction offer when the very future is at stake? But read on we must – and we do – because it remains an activity that allows us to see how large the world is, despite seeming very small at the moment.
A book that could be worthy of consideration is Nkosinathi Sithole’s Hunger Eats a Man (2014), a novel that examines the devastating effects of poverty in the rural areas of South Africa.
Much of the literature that is being produced in contemporary South Africa has a bias towards the city, with often very little reflection on the experiences of people who live in rural communities.
In this award-winning novel, Sithole opens a world that is marked by deep adversities, exploitation and an increasing disillusionment with a nation still learning how to crawl. It is a book worth reading, and reflecting upon, as we start counting down the inevitable costs of this catastrophic moment.
Broken Glass, by Alain Mabanckou
Tom Odhiambo, University of Nairobi
Alain Mabanckou’s fiction may not be known in much of Anglophone Africa but translation is making it easily available. Mabanckou’s 2005 Broken Glass, set in a bar, Credit Gone West, is a good read for times likes these – easy enough for someone interested in light reading; deep enough for someone looking for a nuanced depiction of African modernity. For those who can no longer access their beloved pub, it will remind you of the sounds, smells, sights, that only a bar can produce, from the beginning to the end.
The tragic life of Broken Glass, the narrator, who appears “self-quarantined” in the bar, mirrors those of the different characters in the society, whose stories we hear in the many anecdotes he tells. The dark humour, satirical tone, endless allusions, and lack of conventional punctuation (sometimes making it tedious to follow the tale), all build up to a dystopic story. But, in the end, the bizarre story in Broken Glass should surely lead you to search for more of Mabanckou’s novels.
Life and Times of Michael K by JM Coetzee
Aretha Phiri, Rhodes University
The oldie on the list, from 1983. An award-winning novel by JM Coetzee, Life and Times of Michael K evokes a desperately depressing sense of subjective fragility and existential nothingness – concerns for which the author is well known.
Set during a period analogous to civil war, it’s a story about a seemingly insipid and largely enigmatic character whose journeys across and encounters with inhospitable landscapes and unwelcoming communities from the Western Cape province to the Karoo see him, at the novel’s end, gathering water from a well with “a teaspoon and a long roll of string”.
And yet Michael K’s vacuous itinerancy also suggests something pathetically hopeful about the existential journey and signals something ironically prescient about the will to endure. Michael K is a sobering read for these testing times.
Young Adult Fiction (YA) picks apart first experiences, good and bad. They are often stories about the psychological and moral growth of a protagonist, which balance romance with social issues such as gender, race and class. Although marketed to an older audience, Sally Rooney’s 2018 novel Normal People shares many of the tropes of great YA fiction. A coming-of-age story, its lead characters, Marianne and Connell, navigate love and class while developing a better understanding of who they are and want to be.
The fact that such a popular book targeted at an adult audience shares many similarities with YA is not surprising. For over a decade now, YA fiction has enjoyed a growing readership. Although it is aimed at teens, the books have proven popular with adults too. According to a survey by Bowker Market Research in 2012, 55% of YA book purchases were made by adults, and 78% of those adults said the books were for themselves.
With Normal People having just been adapted for television, people have once again been won over by Rooney’s quiet but powerful story of love and pain. Search for the book and you are sure to be presented with the question “What should I read after Normal People?”. So for those lusting for more, here are five YA books to fill the hole left by Connell and Marianne.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
One of the most famous books on this list, The Hate U Give was lauded for its no-holds-barred approach to some of America’s most contentious issues, including the weaponising of racial stereotypes and the killing of unarmed Black people by police. The book’s protagonist Starr is from the poor black neighbourhood of Garden Heights. She’s forced to witness the police shooting of her childhood friend, Khalil. While demanding justice, Starr attends a mainly white private school where to fit in and avoid stereotypes, she changes almost everything about herself – her style of clothing, her language, and her connection to Khalil. She also dates a white boy who doesn’t understand why Starr feels alienated at the school. Thomas explores their relationship with an expert touch, examining the nature of poverty and class privilege that is often intertwined with race.
American Royals by Katharine McGee
A funny “what if” novel where George Washington became the first King of America after the Revolution. It follows three royal children: Bea, Jefferson, and Samantha, as they navigate romance in the public eye and their feelings for partners who are considered unworthy because of their working-class backgrounds. McGee states that her fiction is heavily inspired by British royalty. The book does an excellent job of analysing the pressures of fame and the responsibility of monarchy through the lenses of class and gender. American Royals examines the detrimental effect of social scrutiny of the rich and famous and in many ways echoes the criticism levelled at the British paparazzi in the wake of Princess Diana’s death.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
It may seem odd to refer to Pride and Prejudice as YA but, like Normal People, it does share many of the same tropes of the coming-of-age story. It is about a young woman navigating the path between girlhood in the family home to adulthood through marriage.
Austen’s prose is witty and tongue in cheek, offering glimpses into the aristocratic society of Regency England. A book ahead of its time, Pride and Prejudice is outrageously funny in its critique of gender and class. Elizabeth breaks the mould of feminine conformity as an intelligent woman who is unafraid to speak her mind. Austen is careful and meticulous in her attempts to distinguish the term “gentleman” from the term “aristocrat”. In doing so she reveals that the two are not indistinguishable – the men in her fiction are often aristocratic, but their class status does not excuse their problematic actions.
The Education of Margot Sanchez by Lilliam Rivera
Like The Hate U Give, Rivera’s coming-of-age novel puts the relationship between race and class under a microscope. Margot struggles with reconciling her conservative Puerto Rican upbringing with the lives of excess and indulgence of her friends from her mostly white prep school. After she’s caught stealing her father’s credit card to impress her friends, Margot is forced to serve time in the family’s grocery store in the Bronx. There, she meets Moises, an ex-drug dealer fighting against gentrification and the eviction of local Latinx citizens to make way for luxury apartment blocks. It’s an engaging story that does not hold back on its criticisms of stereotypes and depictions of poverty caused by societal racism.
The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater
For something different but in the same spirit, this is a fantasy tale of unlikely lovers – sensible Blue who comes from relative poverty and Gansey, the king of the local elite boy’s school, Aglionby Academy. While Blue holds down an after-school job and makes her own clothes, Gansey is rich and well connected.
Gansey blunders his way through talks about money and privilege, and regularly upsets his friends with his ignorance and his belief he can buy his way through life. He throws money at situations and people expecting it to solve problems, including bribing the school to not expel a troubled friend. Through Blue and Gansey, Stiefvater utilises the popular YA trope of star-crossed love. A trope that is based on class divides and magic that can be traced back to canonical texts such as Dante’s The Divine Comedy and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that humans are connected, and that an individual’s actions can have profound consequences for the local community, the nation, and beyond. A good detective story, whether it takes place within an English country house or travels across international borders, reminds readers of this fundamental truth.
But in both country-house and hard-boiled traditions their function is similar. They link disparate individuals and communities as they reconstruct events, and raise the possibility that, whoever pulled the trigger or administered the poison, we all share some responsibility for allowing such things to happen.
The selection below, I hope, reflects the genre’s diversity. What connects these books, for all their stylistic variety, is a preoccupation with links between people and communities and a desire to explore the implications of every action, deliberate or accidental.
Metta Fuller Victor: The Dead Letter (1866)
The first full-length detective novel in American literature, The Dead Letter, published under the pen-name Seeley Register, is a curious hybrid. Featuring a country house that might be haunted, a clairvoyant child who – conveniently – is the detective’s daughter, and scenes of deathly pale women wandering moonlit gardens, mourning lost lovers, it shows how 19th-century detectives emerged from Gothic literature.
It is also a sentimental love story and a meditation on the corrupting power of money.
Like the Edgar Allan Poe stories which influenced it, and the Sherlock Holmes tales that followed, its narrator is not the detective, but the detective’s friend who – like the reader – is inclined to romanticise the sleuth’s heightened abilities.
The Dead Letter can be florid and outlandish, but it combines its eclectic elements to highly entertaining effect.
Raymond Chandler: The Long Goodbye (1953)
Philip Marlowe, the hero of seven novels and numerous short stories by Raymond Chandler, is tall, handsome, witty and admirably cynical about the effects of wealth. I’d love to recommend all the Marlowe stories and, given that its author intended it to be the last, The Long Goodbye might seem an idiosyncratic choice.
Stranger still, its pleasures are less to do with the detective thriller’s traditional virtues – intricate plotting, dynamic action – and more with the air of nostalgic melancholia Chandler conjures. There are murders, of course, and there is the vivid evocation of Los Angeles in its grubby splendour. There is also Marlowe’s trademark gift for metaphor: at the beginning, watching two people arguing outside a club, he remarks:
The girl gave him a look which ought to have stuck at least four inches out of his back.
But the novel’s heart is the unlikely friendship between Marlowe and Terry Lennox, a rich, dipsomaniac veteran locked in a loveless marriage, emotionally scarred by his combat experiences. As its title suggests, this epic and heartbreaking novel is about goodbyes: to innocence, to friendship, to the conventions of the detective story, and to an America untainted by consumerism.
Agatha Christie: Cat Among the Pigeons (1959)
Christie remains the pre-eminent writer of the “whodunit”. Her sheer prolificacy masks the fact that she is a consistently innovative plotter, unafraid to experiment with point-of-view in sometimes radical ways. She also produces stories that are dark, disturbing, and morally ambiguous – characteristics highlighted in recent adaptations such as the BBC’s version of The Pale Horse.
Though not among her most celebrated novels, Cat Among the Pigeons delightfully combines international espionage and country house mystery, with the “country house” being a prestigious girls’ prep school in England where members of staff start dying in suspicious circumstances.
Ingenious and laced with cruelty, it might be read as a story about Great Britain’s declining empire, or the fragile isolation of the upper classes, or it might simply be read as Mallory Towers with added murder.
Paul Auster: The New York Trilogy (1987)
This comprises three distinctive tales: City of Glass, Ghosts and The Locked Room, that conspire to connect in surprising ways. Often regarded as a model of “antidetection”, Auster’s trilogy frequently confounds expectations, promising stock elements of the hard-boiled story – the enigmatic loner gumshoe, the femme fatale, the dirty city – before jettisoning the cliches and exploring new territory.
Auster’s New York is a labyrinth ruled by chance, where one’s doppelganger can appear for no reason, where a man can devote his life to collecting and renaming bits of rubbish, and where “Paul Auster” can appear as a character. These are elaborate puzzles yet highly readable thrillers.
They are perfect stories for lockdown because they are about the consolations of reading and the paradoxical truth that the deeper into solitude we go, the more we understand our vital connection to others.
Walter Mosley: Devil in a Blue Dress (1990)
This is the first thriller starring Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, an African-American factory worker in the Watts area of Los Angeles, who falls into detection when a stranger enters his local bar and offers him a missing persons job. Mosley’s work exemplifies the ways in which detective stories, tightly bound to specific places and times, function not only as entertainment but also as historical documents.
Devil in a Blue Dress, through energetic vernacular dialogue, realistic situations and wry observations on race relations, brilliantly evokes the lives of African-American families who moved from the southern states to California during the Second Great Migration.
More than the talented amateurs of the country house mystery, who possess a timeless quality and whose successful investigations tend to reinstate cosy normality – and Marlowe, a 20th-century knight errant with a nostalgic impulse – Easy Rawlins demonstrates that detectives are shaped by historical circumstances. He also happens to have one of the most captivatingly unstable sidekicks in all detective writing.
Detectives are people who move, tracing links between people, places and times. They are also expert readers: of clues, people, situations. During lockdown, these stories can transport us elsewhere and remind us that reading is an empathetic act, a way of reaching out and trying to connect with others.
The evolution of the novel and short story in the 19th century brought us one of the greatest human sources of comfort, besides food and a nice hot bath. When someone tells me they are planning to “curl up with a good book”, I am filled with a sense of peace on their behalf – of quiet enjoyment, perhaps accompanied by a little soft music and the crackle of a fire.
Regular solitary time is becoming the norm for many. Many of us are already tired of the enjoyable inanity of Netflix and Amazon Prime and are ready for something to lose ourselves in completely.
In the 19th century, the novel boomed as literacy and leisure time increased. Novels were frequently published in weekly parts, one to three chapters at a time. They had to be long enough to fill the required number of issues, and interesting enough to ensure readers kept buying the magazine or periodical (or run the risk of being cancelled mid-series). It is this combination that makes them a great resource for times like today.
Human beings are designed to love stories. Our brains seek narratives to help us make sense of the world. We communicate using stories to exchange knowledge and gain understanding. As Robert Louis Stevenson wrote: “fiction is to the grown man what play is to the child” – through fiction we learn by imaginative experience.
Stories help us gain insight into things we cannot or should not experience. They also keep us safe – we tell each other cautionary tales all the time. So let’s do as our NHS doctors and nurses ask and learn from their stories of the virus – while also tucking ourselves away with some great old novels:
Anthony Hope: The Prisoner of Zenda (1894)
An exciting and funny adventure story about a man who goes on holiday and ends up as temporary king of Ruritania.
London-born adventurer Rudolf Rassendyll is persuaded to pretend to be the king after the real king is kidnapped by his evil half-brother on the eve of his coronation. A distant relation of the royal family, Rudolf is the king’s spitting image.
Beautifully written and filled with energy, the story romps across the beautiful scenery of Ruritania to the mysterious castle of Zenda. Rudolf is one of the most vibrant and positive characters I have come across and will fill you with hope. But what will he do when he falls in love with the king’s beautiful fianceé?
Cross-dressing, swashbuckling adventuress Leona Lacoste journeys from Rio de Janeiro to London to clear her father’s name.
Unknown to her until his death, he has been in hiding in their Brazilian home, having escaped some scandal or crime in England. To get to the bottom of the mystery, Leona must stop at nothing.
Disguised as a man to make the journey possible in the 1870s, she proves herself onboard a ship in a dramatic duel and seduces the daughter of a rich industrialist. But what will she uncover about her unknown family history?
The celebrated mystery which launched a new type of story known as the sensation or enigma novel.
Walter Hartright is startled by the sudden appearance of a mysterious woman dressed in white walking on the road to London late at night. She asks him for directions and he decides to see her safely to a cab.
On the way, he discovers that she is from the very town to which he is about the journey to start work as an art teacher. Little does he know how this mysterious woman and the family in Limeridge will change his life forever.
This may seem an unlikely choice but don’t let the TV and film adaptations fool you. This is a seriously good book. The adventurers who track and foil Count Dracula, led by Mina Harker and Abraham Van Helsing, are the epitome of organised and resourceful Victorian society.
This book is all about creating order from chaos: a reassuring ideal at the moment. Mina Harker’s way of life is doubly threatened by Dracula as he endangers both her fiancé, Jonathan Harker, whom he imprisons in his castle; and her best friend, Lucy Westenra, who is tormented by sleepwalking and mysterious illnesses.
Mina acts as the lynchpin for the five men who join together to defeat the count. The story that we are treated to is her collection of their accounts, creating a magnificent and lucid whole from diaries, cuttings, reports and letters. How will these rational beings thwart the supernatural power of the count?
You’ll have noticed that I have stuck to books with happy endings, or at least tidy ones. There is no Thomas Hardy (you must take broadcaster Andy Hamilton’s advice and read Hardy’s novels backwards to get a happy ending), and no George Eliot, whose wonderfully complex characters are very real and intriguing but not often comforting.
Some are old, familiar favourites, others lesser known but equally enjoyable. The list is by no means complete. It is intended to be the beginning of a journey back to familiar friends and an exploration of new ones. They are shared with love and care in the hope they will make you feel a little better for their company.