I was a squeamish reader as a child. I still am one. I tend to avoid most genre fiction for this reason, besides skipping strong scenes in any book I read, unless when they are essential to the plot, theme, or premise. Several critically acclaimed and well-written books have disturbed me so deeply that I would rather not re-read them, and shudder when I remember reading them– A Clockwork Orange, Lord of the Flies, Room, Oryx and Crake, Trainspotting…a long list.
But there are exceptions, and many. Here is a list of my top ten books in this category, books with premises, themes or containing scenes or language that are disturbing, and yet have the power hold most sensitive readers within their lines.
Plot spoilers may lie ahead.
- Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Lolita tops the list. Humbert Humbert, the epitome of the unreliable narrator, is one of the most complex and interesting, if not likeable characters in literature. He cites his aborted romance with Annabelle at the age of twelve, as the reason for his pedophilic tendencies, or love for nymphets, in his words. He comes across as a vile monster during the first part of the novel as he embarks upon the seduction of Lolita, but in the second half, after Lolita manages to flee from him, he emerges a shattered man who seems to realise the enormity of his crime and seems to regret it. Later as Lolita stands before him, no longer a fresh, pre-pubescent girl but a worn out, married woman, barefoot and heavily pregnant, Humber proclaims that he loves her, the kind of love that is ‘at first sight, at last sight, at ever and ever sight’. His guilt and remorse and the murder that he commits soon afterwards pronouncing Lolita as his child creates something like pity in the reader’s mind, which is a testimony to the genius of Nabokov. One of the critical essays on Nabokov speculates that he styled each of his novels to fit the theme. And as Lolita was about seduction, he intended the prose to charm the reader. That theory may well be true, for he had me on the very first page.
- Kafka on the shore by Haruki Murakami
A surreal retelling of the legend of Oedipus, this novel about fifteen year old Kafka Tamura who allegedly commits both patricide and incest, has in addition to these, a number of disturbing scenes of sexuality and violence including inadvertent abuse of a schoolchild by his teacher and graphic scenes of torture of cats. But the surreal sentences nevertheless flow in a lucid stream (keeping in mind that this is a translation) that the reader willingly floats through the pages, compelled to go anywhere Murakami wants to take them through the text.
- Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
Despite the unusual premise of a couple who deliberately use drugs and radioactive material to produce freak children in order to run their travelling carnival, the themes that come through this strange story are surprisingly conventional – sibling rivalry, the meaning of family, sexual jealousy, the power of autosuggestion and mass hysteria which arises from a cult, etc. Though a number of scenes are bizarre and even repulsive, the narrative is good enough to keep even a squeamish reader turning the pages.
- My Uncle Oswald by Roald Dahl
Though not frequently listed among Dahl’s more popular books, this outrageous novel about Uncle Oswald (who appears in two other of his short stories) is extremely funny. Uncle Oswald chances upon the potent nature of the Sudanese Blister Beetle, armed with a supply of which, he conspires with the beautiful Yasmin to create an illegal sperm bank of the rich and the famous from all around Europe, with a view to selling superior genes in an open market. Proust, Joyce, Picasso, Monet and G B Shaw are among the potential victims whom the pair try to con. In spite of the raunchy premise, the narrative remains decorous and almost innocently hilarious throughout, with a wicked Dahlian twist at the end.
- The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver
This gem of a debut novel which pulls in the reader from the very first sentence, addresses among other things, the serious issue of child abuse. The spunky heroine Taylor Greer is forced to take charge of a Cherokee baby and in a disturbing scene, discovers that the child has been physically abused. The rest of the novel is among other things, about how Taylor heals the child with love and formally adopts her. A confident and energetic heroine, Taylor flits through the novel like a sunbeam. Her funny and yet warm narrative makes it a joy to accompany her on her adventures as she finally comes of age.
- A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
A number of dark issues lurk within this mammoth novel with its mild premise of arranged marriage in newly Independent India. Between the stories of four elite and educated Indian families with their polished lives steeped in art, literature, family and culture, lie creepy sub-plots of adultery, illegitimacy, debauchery and incest. But to use a metaphor that the author’s alter ego employs to describe the book, the novel is like a huge, spreading banyan tree. The solid trunk, the sturdy roots, the leafy shade of the branches and the birds singing on them capture the reader’s interest much more than the disturbing sub-plots above which recede to the background.
- Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
Recently I watched the movie based on the book, which left me underwhelmed. The film was not a patch on the novel which won the Booker and the Best of the Booker prizes. But that was to be expected, considering that the visual imagery conjured up by the book is such a rich experience for any reader, that a film adaptation could never do justice to it. The book has several disturbing scenes including explicit violence and torture (the emasculation of the Midnight’s children being one), but the beauty and strength of the prose is such that the novel plays out vividly in the reader’s mind as the pages are turned, compulsively, till the end where Saleem starts writing his story, mirroring the story of his nation.
- The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
An inspired tribute to the gothic novel and specifically Jane Eyre, this is a story which contains many stories within its framework, narrated by a mysterious author who wants to tell the truth after a lifetime of writing bestselling fiction. There are plenty of disturbing scenes involving violence, incestuous passion, addiction, mental illness and torture, but the essence of the book right from the beginning is the celebration of the love of fiction. That, and the powerful narrative made this reader stay on the page, even after the happy ending, mesmerised by the words.
- The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
The story of five teenage girls who are smothered by their parents, fall into depression and kill themselves one after the other (no spoilers here, it is given away in the title) is perhaps meant to be disturbing. However, the strong characterization, sense of place and setting and above all, the strength and beauty of the narrative voice (first person plural) makes this a compelling read, both in terms of structural form as well as content.
- Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
A dystopian novel set in a time period where firemen burn libraries, the majority of people live in a vacuous state of mind that is kept going by mindless television soaps and the few who dare to read, think or question are branded rebels and forced to choose between conformance or annihilation. Living in this scary world, the protagonist Guy Montag goes from being a fireman to one of the group of people who fight to preserve the written word. This remarkable book written more than fifty years ago has made some chillingly accurate predictions about the future of the human race. A disturbing read at many levels, it is balanced though, by the promise of hope and redemption.