In the course of a long life, you’re going to get asked to recommend a good book to read. What should you say? Of course a sensible answer depends on who is asking, but we don’t know that, so let’s limit ourselves to books that tickle our own fancies. And we can assume, given the high-powered sophistication of this here blog you’re reading, that The Da Vinci Code won’t be first on your list. In fact, let’s also assume that you wouldn’t suggest Pride and Prejudice or Ulysses, as the idea is to make suggestions that your interlocutor may not actually have heard of.
So here’s my list — five novels that haven’t ascended into the literary canon (and are unlikely to do so), yet had me gasping with delight or shuddering with (a pleasant kind of) horror. My own personal cutoff for being obscure enough to count as an interesting recommendation was “less well known than Flaubert’s Parrot,” which otherwise might have made the list.
- The Debt to Pleasure, John Lanchester. This one is a favorite of various CV bloggers, as I recall. A wonderfully dark novel, structured loosely around a series of recipes. You won’t learn any new culinary tricks, but you’ll be drawn into the wicked plotting of Tarquin Winot as he spins his schemes with considerable savoir faire. The first book I recommend to people I think highly of.
- Thus Was Adonis Murdered, Sarah Caudwell. The opposite of dark, although there is a murder, and a good deal of British tax law. Caudwell has written a mystery novel populated by barristers of supernatural wit and cleverness, resulting in one of the most consistently amusing books I’ve ever read.
- The Wasp Factory, Iain Banks. Back to darkness. Banks is a prolific author, alternating between “straight” fiction and science fiction novels. This was his first, and it’s a masterpiece of twisted imagination. There’s a surprise ending, but the convoluted path by which you get there has a terrifying internal logic.
- Love in a Dead Language, Lee Siegel. No, not that Lee Siegel. This one is a professor of religion at the University of Hawaii, who has written the best postmodern-pastiche novel I’ve come across. Structured loosely as a translation of the Kama Sutra, complete with puzzles and self-reference and fourth-wall breaking. Likely to be most appreciated by academics.
- The Book of Revelation, Rupert Thomson. Picked up on a whim in an airport bookstore, this is a disturbing short novel about a ballet dancer who is kidnapped by a group of women and used for their sexual pleasure. The quick response is “that doesn’t sound so bad,” but the truth is that is very much is. This book is a thoughtful examination of deep issues of identity, freedom, and obsession.
I could confidently recommend any of them, with the understanding that my tastes are not exactly universal. Your mileage may vary.