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.
Today is Diwali, the festival of lights in India. Light is often used as a metaphor for life. Today I want to reflect for a while on the darkness that descends upon the mind, for it is while we are in the dark that we learn the real value of light.
The cold and the dark. These are two metaphors that my protagonists use euphemistically to describe depression. It is not easy to describe depression. The exact reason why depression occurs is not known. It can descend upon anyone like a cloak of darkness, trapping them in a state of inert limbo, leaving them incapacitated of even feeling grief at their condition. For depression is not simply a feeling of intense sorrow, rather it is a total lack of feeling and the resulting helplessness. As Barbara Kingsolver said in her wonderful debut novel The Bean Trees, “Sadness is more or less like a head cold – with patience, it passes. Depression is like cancer”
Sylvia Plath who is almost a poster girl for depression wrote an elegant semi-biographical account of her experiences with the disease, called The Bell Jar. Plath likens the world of a depressed person to a dead dream when she says that ‘“To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.”
Though she described a hopeful ending for her protagonist in the book, Plath died of the dreadful disease, succumbing to the darkness that threatened to take over her brilliant mind about two weeks after it was published.
The Scottish author Muriel Spark whom I greatly admire was another genius who was affected by depression. She describes this chillingly in ‘The Driver’s Seat’, a short book about a young woman alienated from life, which is so intensely written that Spark is said to have been hospitalised when she finished writing it.
J K Rowling gave one of the most apt metaphors for this ugly condition when she created the dementors – faceless, rotting beings that spread a deathly chill in their vicinity and suck out every happy memory and eventually the souls of their victims.
Today depression is no longer restricted to artists and authors, it affects almost anyone and is as one of the many banes of modern life. More often than not, a person realises the condition and yet is unable to do anything about it, which makes them even more vulnerable, setting forth an avalanche of pain and darkness.
I was deeply touched to come across this poem in the author Alana Munro’s blog:
She writes, “They say – ‘what could possibly be making her depressed? She has everything. She needs to wake up and smell the roses. …Don’t you know that this illness warps reality? All I can see are the thorns.”
Again, “I wish I didn’t feel so brittle, so painfully sensitive. Where every idle comment thrown my way could break me.”
This is just how a depressed person feels. How then, does a person cope with this terrible afflication in a competitive, fast paced world where one has to keep running even to stay in one’s position?
This is the place where my hero Sid finds himself, struggling to survive in a hostile world while trying to cope with the darkness that is slowly closing over him.
Sid survives, and makes the leap from the darkness to the light, passing through a boundary which stretches between reality and fiction. This is the theme at the heart of my novel The Reengineers.
To all my readers who celebrate the festival, Happy Diwali. I will write more in future posts about Sid’s journey from the darkness to the light.
Coming soon! The Re-engineers (HarperCollins) A walk through the boundaries between fiction and reality
It has often happened that I read a book by a certain author for the first time and am so impressed that I seek out the rest of the author’s oeuvre only to find that however good the others might be, the first book still seems to be the best among the others.
The Bean Trees was my first Barbara Kingsolver book. It still remains my favourite novel by her, though I later read and loved her other novels including the intense and beautifully written The Poisonwood Bible. I became a fan of Bulbul Sharma after reading her short story collection My Sainted Aunts which is on my shelf of books that are most often re-read. I have read most of her other work but other than the memoir Shaya Tales, found none of them particularly memorable. Her novel The Tailor of Giripul that I preordered and bought as soon as it was released was disappointing. It was overwritten, had a shaky plotline and very little of the warmth, elegance and beauty of My Sainted Aunts.
I have read the complete works of Vikram Seth several times over (except the sentimental ‘An Equal Music’ and the stodgy, prosaic ‘Two Lives’) but none of his books have affected me as much as The Golden Gate which I read first at the age of ten and then again and again and again.
So too, has been my experience with the books of Julian Barnes. I was so enthralled by Flaubert’s Parrot that I had set upon reading everything else written by him. I have enjoyed every book by Barnes that I have read so far, but Flaubert’s Parrot still remains the best of the lot.
The Sense of an ending is a remarkable book which explores key existential questions in depth. The short story collection Pulse paints an intricate picture of human emotions. The estate agent who tries to find love with a Polish waitress and stumbles upon her sad past story, two elderly authors returning from a literary festival reflecting on their early lives and loves, stories which explore marriages from various angles and the dinner party conversations which say little but convey a great deal about the partying friends – each story in the collection provides a deeper insight into the fragile nature of life and relationships.
Talking it Over is centred around three characters of a love triangle – Stuart, Gillian and Oliver who take turns to share their part of the story with the reader. It is one of those books which can be read at various levels – as an easy read on a flight about two friends and their love for one woman, or as a study on friendship, marriage, fidelity and betrayal. The shy, nerdy Stuart falls in love with Gillian and marries her. His friend Oliver who is portrayed as an unscrupulous loafer who had earlier routinely taken advantage of Stuart, falls in love with Gillian on the day of her wedding and begins to woo her aggressively.
While reading this I was reminded of the Basu Chatterjee film Choti si Baat which had a similar storyline, of a timid young man who lacks the courage to express his feelings to the woman he loves and is left watching as an aggressive, smooth talking rival outsmarts him each time. Choti si Baat had the protagonist turning to a kind senior for help who gives him a personality makeover, grooms him into a confident young man and assures the hero and the viewers of a happy ending.
Talking it Over raises several questions on the definitions of friendship, love, marriage, intimacy and betrayal and ends abruptly with many questions unanswered, many threads left open.
In its sequel Love, etc. Barnes returns to the characters after a period of ten years. Some kind of karmic justice has been effected. Stuart is now a prosperous entrepreneur dealing in organic food. Gillian and Oliver have two children, are impoverished and surviving on her income while Oliver is trying to survive a breakdown. In spite of having been through a second marriage and divorce, Stuart is still smarting from the betrayal by his best friend and ex-wife and craves vengeance. Like its predecessor, the book is eminently readable for the beauty of Barnes’s prose, his wit and clever wordplay and perhaps above all, the fickle nature of contemporary relationships and the evolving ideas on the meaning love and marriage in the present day.
I am halfway through Arthur and George which is based on a real life incident, one of the much discussed criminal cases in England in the early twentieth century. Besides providing an insight into the life of an early Indian immigrant to the United Kingdom, the book paints an intimate picture of the celebrated author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his life and writing, and how the creator of so many intriguing mysteries found himself solving a real life crime.
Arthur and George is an excellent book, gripping and like all of Barnes’s books, exceedingly well written. Sir Arthur’s exploration of spiritualism and psychic phenomena add another interesting angle to the book. But to me, Flaubert’s Parrot remains the best among his novels that I have read so far. I hope to read his complete oeuvre someday and wonder if I will like any of his other books better than Flaubert’s parrot.
I have also felt the same way about the books of Kiran Nagarkar and Jeffrey Eugenides – Ravan and Eddie was better than Cuckold, The Virgin Suicides better than Middlesex. But all of those brilliant books call for a separate post.
It is hard to believe that The Bean Trees is Barbara Kingsolver’s first novel. A story that flows smoothly with a plot that brings out themes of personal freedom, homeland and family, it is a beautiful work of art from the first sentence to the last.
When Marietta Greer leaves her small hometown in Kentucky to seek her fortune in the world, renaming herself as Taylor as her car stops in Taylorville so as to build a completely new identity to go with her new life, she resolves to avoid two things at any cost – tyres and motherhood. However almost immediately after setting out on her journey, she finds herself the adopted mother of a little Indian girl and working as an assistant at Mattie’s Jesus is Lord used tyres in Arizona.
The first few chapters of the book alternate between the stories of Taylor and Lou Ann, a young woman whose erstwhile cowboy husband has left her. After a hilarious encounter with a group of new agers who eschew caffiene and live on beancurd, Taylor moves in with Lou Ann. The two young women cannot be more unlike each other, in spite of their similar backgrounds – While Taylor is spunky and confident thanks to her supportive mother, Lou Ann is timid and has a tendency to victimize herself, conditioned by years of ill treatment by her family.
Taylor and Lou Ann settle into a comfortable routine along with their respective babies. Turtle, the little Indian girl adopted by Taylor whose dark past of abuse had rendered her mute and dormant begins to heal with time as she starts to grow and talk. When Taylor finds herself in trouble with the authorities as Turtle is not her legal daughter, she goes to check on the whereabouts of Turtle’s relatives with a couple of friends – Estevan and Esperanza, who are themselves fugitives on the run, and from there the book flows into a moving, realistic conclusion.
Taylor is a honest, strong protagonist whom one grows to like and admire over the pages. The way she balances her independent spirit that craves freedom with her love for her mother, her selflessness in adopting the abused child, her dry sense of humour in the most trying situations, her friendship with Lou Ann that is marked by both empathy and non-interference and the way she refrains from voicing her feelings for her loved one who sadly belongs to another make her stand out as one of the finest characters in literature.
Everything about this book was just right – The plot, the themes, the dialogue, and above all, the characters all of whom come alive, from the main protagonists to the side characters like Mattie – the kind, no-nonsense old lady who runs an illegal asylum for the homeless immigrants above her used tyres shop, Lou’s neighbours – The rude Edna and sweet, blind Virgie, the taciturn social worker who is nevertheless sympathetic to Taylor and even the schizophrenic cat Snowboots.
Certain scenes linger long after the book is finished – Like the vision of the night-blooming cereus at Edna and Virgie’s house, Taylor’s reaction when when Estevan stops the car allowing a quail to gather her chicks to safety, her musings on how the moon light resembles her mother’s potato soup after she decides to stay away from the man she loves, her longing for a normal family and the way she exclaims that miracles do happen when she sees beans growing in wisteria trees.
The Bean Trees is a delightful book that gives the reader a glimpse of life in the world where it is set, and one of the most likeable protagonists in literature.
Book Riot’s take on the best moms in literature.
Should Molly Weasely write a parenting book? She is hardly the perfect mother to her biological children – yelling at them very often and embarrassing them in public. She is far too intense to be likeable, like Mrs. Bennett, Bessie Glass and some of the Tiger mothers in Amy Tan’s novels. Among the other literary mamas mentioned here and elsewhere, Mrs. March is too cloying. Mrs. Murry from A Wrinkle in Time is too perfect. Mrs. Mahesh Kapoor from A Suitable Boy is too much of a doormat to her family, while Mrs. Rupa Mehra from the same book is one interfering bossy woman whom one would hardly care to meet in real life.
It is easier to list the worst moms in literature – Brenda Last, Irene Pollock, Charlotte Haze…
Some of my favourites – Jack’s mother from Room by Emma Donoghue, Em from Em and The Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto and the delightful Bernadette Fox from Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple. One of the best mother characters in fiction is Taylor Greer in The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven, a feisty woman who is an affectionate and caring mother to her adopted daughter Turtle.
This quote below from The Bean Trees shows how Taylor turned out to be a good mother. It is thanks to her own mother Alice, a single woman from a working class background who raised her daughter to become a smart young woman brimming with confidence and self respect.
“There were two things about Mama. One is she always expected the best out of me. And the other is that then no matter what I did, whatever I came home with, she acted like it was the moon I had just hung up in the sky and plugged in all the stars. Like I was that good.”
~ Barbara Kingsolver, The Bean Trees
Which sounds similar to the maternal Aibileen reassuring the child Mae Mobley,
“You is kind. You is smart. You is important.”
~ Kathryn Stockett, The Help
Literature (and the real world) could do with more Moms like Alice and Aibileen.