Commencing a series of posts on Ten of my favourite novels of a specific kind.
I am something of a squeamish reader. Several books have disturbed me so deeply that I have given many of them away rather than keep them in the library– 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 with disturbing premises, themes, scenes or language that still hold most sensitive readers within their lines.
Please note that plot spoilers may lie ahead.
- Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Humbert Humbert, the epitome of the unreliable narrator and one of the most complex and interesting characters in literature comes across as a vile monster during the first part of the novel as he embarks upon the seduction of Lolita, but after Lolita manages to flee from him, he emerges a shattered man who seems to realise the enormity of his crime and regrets it. As Lolita stands before him, no longer a fresh, pre-pubescent girl but a worn out, married woman, barefoot and heavily pregnant, Humbert 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 shows him as having a semblance humanity left in some dark corner of his warped and demented mind, which is a testimony to the genius of Nabokov. More than one critical essay on Nabokov speculate that he styled the narrative voice in 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 other disturbing scenes of sexuality and violence including inadvertent abuse of a schoolchild by his teacher and graphic scenes of cats being tortured. But the surreal sentences nevertheless flow such 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, and the power of autosuggestion and mass hysteria which cult leaders use to manipulate their flock among others. Though a number of scenes are bizarre and even outright repulsive, the wonderful narrative style keeps 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 more than the disturbing sub-plots which recede to the background.
- Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
The film based on the book 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 novel 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.
- The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
An inspired tribute to the gothic novel and specifically Jane Eyre, this wonderful novel contains many stories within its framework, narrated by the biographer of a mysterious author who wants to tell the truth after a lifetime of writing bestselling fiction. There are several disturbing scenes involving violence, incest, debauchery, addiction, mental illness and torture, but the essence of the book from right the first page is a celebration of the love of fiction. This premise and the compelling narrative made this reader stay on the page even after the happy ending, mesmerised by the beauty of the words.
- The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
A 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 rarely used form of the narrative voice (first person plural) makes this a compelling read, in terms of both structural form and 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 and which presents a society that is too close to the present day world, the story is balanced by the promise of hope and redemption.