You’re reading a book; you fall in love with said book, and then discover that nobody you know has read it, or even heard of it. It’s possibly the most infuriating sequence of events that a reader can be forced to endure, and, thanks to my habit of exclusively reading unconventional, contemporary novels, it’s something I always find myself dealing with.
So, here is a manifestation of that struggle: five books that deserve to be read, and deserve to be talked about.
Disclaimer: I know people do talk about these novels, most of them have received various literary prize nominations and critical praise, but they are seriously under-appreciated by the mainstream readership etc.
Fifteen Dogs – André Alexis (2015)
Unsurprisingly, this is a novel about 15 dogs, so if you love dogs, you will love this. If you don’t, don’t worry, I promise you it’s just as enjoyable. The premise of the novel is, to put it simply, ‘what would happen if you gave dogs human intelligence?’ and the results are as surprising as they are expected. Alexis takes this concept and runs with it, creating a novel which is humorous, philosophical, and necessarily painful (I won’t spoil it for you but, be prepared to mourn things you didn’t even realise you could mourn).
It’s written from the point of view of the dogs, with conversations of the Gods that endowed them their “gift” sandwiched in-between, and this switch up of perspectives makes the novel really hard to put down. The characters are complex and well thought out, and the non-human voices provide refreshing takes on topics ranging from the purpose of poetry, to BDSM. If you are looking to laugh, cry (whilst smiling), and question why we are the way we are, then read Fifteen Dogs. It’s written beautifully, insightfully, and with heart. It’s the first André Alexis novel I’ve read, but it certainly wont be the last.
Gilead – Marilynne Robinson (2004)
I can almost guarantee that if you saw Gilead in Waterstones and read the blurb, you’d think ‘Nah, not for me’. I did too. But, I gave it the benefit of the doubt and I am so glad I did.
The novel follows the memories and thoughts of John Ames, a dying man, as he writes letters for his young son. There is no real pattern to his musings, as he considers things as and when they come to him, which makes for a relaxed, easy, narrative. Every part of John’s life is influenced by his faith and in a lot of ways, that’s the beauty of the novel; Robinson presents his faith, from my point of view, without comment, giving both you and John the space to reflect yourselves.
Obviously, it’s John’s character which carries the book and he proves to be understanding, compassionate, and sometimes flawed. It genuinely is a pleasure to get to know him. I won’t lie, it’s slow, it requires patience and attention, but will reward you with an undoubtedly intimate reading experience.
Spill Simmer Falter Wither – Sara Baume (2015)
I’ve just this moment realised that 3/5 of these books involve dogs, so I’m sorry for his apparently dog-bias list, and by sorry I mean not sorry at all. Spill simmer falter wither is, however, a proudly unique novel, unlike any dog-based novel I’ve ever read.
The basic plot isn’t too unusual: an outcast (in this case an unkempt middle-aged man with emotional baggage), meets an unwanted pet (one-eyed dog with a thirst for badgers), and they both help each other to grow. It is, as you’d expect, lovely in its message. However, the real selling point of the novel is its boldness to twist the conventions of prose. Baume’s writing is disorientating, it tips you on your head and then asks you, ‘Now what?‘
The frequent use of ‘you’, used to address both the reader and One-Eye, combined with the rambling, disjointed poetics of Ray’s narration is as intriguing as it is uncomfortable. But once you accept that, and allow yourself to feel the careful thought Baume has put into each word, the story truly blossoms into something special. It breathes life into the ‘one man and his dog’ trope and does so with a reckless perfection that mimics the pair themselves, making it a uniquely enjoyable read.
A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing – Eimear McBride (2014)
This is perhaps the most difficult piece of prose I’ve read this year, both stylistically and thematically. However, it also holds the record of being the most emotional, uncomfortable and yet still rewarding novel I’ve ever read.
Following the growth of a young girl, from her childhood to her early-adulthood, the novel documents every twist and turn of her life from the intimate perspective of her own consciousness. The narration is fragmented, the sentences are broken up and half-formed (see what she did there?), which all come together to give McBride an environment for unlimited emotion. The pain of the girl, who’s never named, is painted across each page, alongside her joy, her passions, and her guilt. It’s dark, it covers unpleasant topics and scenarios that every girl dreads, and with the way it’s written, you can physically see the torment in her head on the page.
It will take you some time to adjust to the writing style (I recommend reading it aloud to get a sense of the rhythm), but it’s well deserving of the extra effort. A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is heartbreaking, but sensational, and I hope to see more novels taking McBride’s raw approach to femininity, sexuality, and youth.
Things We Have In Common – Tasha Kavanagh (2015)
Ok, this is the third and final dog-related novel on this list, and again, it is nothing like the others. Things We Have in Common clings to the ‘coming of age’ sub-genre with dark, twisted claws, taking you down with it, into plot-lines and scenarios you never anticipated.
What starts as a depressing, dry-humoured, and sometimes too relatable, story of a lonely teenage girl, slowly mutates into something else: an uncomfortable tale of a missing school girl. I’m reluctant to say much more, as one of the joys of this novel is how unexpected it is, it catches you off-guard again and again, and you’ll carry on reading out of pure disbelief. The main character, Yasmin, will test the limits of your empathy to the extreme; she’ll have you trapped in a continuous struggle of doubt, trust, disgust, and unease, and you won’t even hate her for it.
It is strange, and conflicting, and I’ll admit I finished it with bewildered acceptance, rather than flat-out enjoyment. But, it’s a wild ride and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a summer read.