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This week I've decided to return to my roots - literary fiction. I've moved away from contemporary literature lately, but I still love it more than anything else. I've been reading YA and romance a lot lately, but I'm definitely in the mood to return to literary fiction.
A quick note: what is literary fiction or contemporary fiction? I don't think it has much to do with the 'quality' of writing, but rather the aim and it's genre. If it's shelved in the Literature & Fiction section at the bookshop and if it's written with a seriousness beyond pure entertainment. Of course entertaining fiction and genre fiction can be literary and there are grey areas, but in general that's what I think of as 'literary fiction'.
So, let's get to it.
In the Mood for Literary Fiction: Top Ten+ Reads
Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín
A quiet story, written beautifully. This is my favourite kind of literary fiction - a deep exploration of a fascinating character and an ordinary life. The book tells the story of a young widow in a small town, raising her family and rebuilding her life after her husband's death. I love Tóibín's writing and his novella The Testament of Mary is another one of my favourites.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
This is a story of a broken family, and the middle daughter Rosemary's rediscovery of the truth behind their brokenness. It's a nostalgic story, a heartbreaking story and a surprising one. It's not the typical family drama, but it is really best to discover the story through Rosemary's telling. As with all of these novels, the writing is very good but it's also a enjoyable read that pulled me in and one that feels easy to read, refreshing to those of us well-versed in literary fiction.
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
The 2014 Man Booker Prize Winner is a hefty tome and one that I'm sure is languishing on many people's TBR lists as one of those 'ought-to-read' award winning books. I am so glad I had the good fortune to devote several weeks to this book when it was first released because it really is a gem. The world is rich and compelling, and the characters are intriguing to say the least. It's set in 19th-century New Zealand in a mining town during their gold rush - a bold, unusual setting to be sure. This is one that takes some commitment, but which is a wonderful experience to read. I often find myself wanting to reread it - a true sign of a good book.
The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng
A book about gardens that somehow also explores trauma and memory as well as art and beauty itself - must be literary fiction. This is an amazing book with so many layers. I found the story to be haunting and memorable. It's one of those books that is just gorgeous and special, one of my favourites.
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
This is a classic YA to literary fiction bridging book - it's a story of five tragic sisters told through the eyes of the neighbour boys who watched them from afar. While some people credit Eugenides's first novel as playing a role in the creation and romanticisation of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl cliché, I think this reading is too simplistic. This is a book about how problematic it is to romanticising sadness. The tragedy of the story is how hard it is for the young boys to see beyond the dream-like idea of the Lisbon sisters . It's an unforgettable book, troubling and hypnotic.
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
This is one of my all-time favourite books. As you might be able to tell from even just this short list of titles, literary fiction can be quiet sad and bleak. But this is a book that is filled with brightness and hope, mixed in with a bit of heartbreak. It's the story of a friendship between two boys, an odd match but tightly bound together. It's a book that I've returned to several times just to enjoy the story.
March by Geraldine Brooks
I've written about my love for Little Women on the blog before and this novel is a beautiful, grown up companion to it. The book, which won the Pullitzer Prize, follows the March sisters' absent father while he is serving in the Union Army during the Civil War. It's a penetrating exploration of a man's crisis in faith through the horrors of war and of slavery. It's exquisitely written and truly feeling in March's passion, doubt, and love.
Arcadia by Lauren Groff
I love Groff's writing - it's really stunning. I've read all three of her books, but Arcadia is my favourite by far. (I wrote a review way back before I was a real book blogger.) The story follows a young boy growing up on a commune in the 1970s, but really it's a story about growing up and learning to accept life with all of its flaws.
The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt
This is a unique book and a unique story, original and captivating. It tells of the strange life and art of Harriet Burden, whose true work is only appreciated after her death. It's a mystery and it's a life story, told through fragmentary sources from characters in the New York art scene, all others overshadowed by the brilliance of Harriet Burden whom we get to know through her journals. This was a gripping read, despite dense passages of philosophy thrown in. It's Harriet Burden who is the alluring heart of this novel and she asks the reader to explore some tricky questions of identity and art.
Bark: Stories by Lorrie Moore
I had to include some short stories in this list - the short story is the bread-and-butter of literary fiction. And Lorrie Moore is one of the contemporary literary scene's greatest treasures when it comes to the short story. These stories are funny and strange and heartfelt. Moore deftly explores the tensions between the intricate inner lives of her characters and the absurdity of real life when faced with disappointment and alien interactions. These stories are just plain great.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
This is a somewhat grudging recommendation from me. It's a odd book to have garnered such hype, not one of my favourites. While I'm not sure it's worth all the hallabaloo I do think it's worth a read, especially if you're in the mood for some serious literary fiction. This book is about trauma and misery and selfhood, great topics for literary fiction. It's prose is elegant and the story and the characters are enthralling.
A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell
This is one of the literary fiction reads that I'm currently enjoying. I was in the mood for literary fiction and this is the book I picked up, so I thought I should include it here. The story is really a suicide note for three sisters as well as a family history spanning across the whole 20th century. I'm enjoying this one quite a lot - the sisters are funny and strange and sad, perfect characters to tell a morose story of loves and lives lost.
I hope this list doesn't put you off with all the sad, bleak plots. It's funny how some of the most beautiful and uplifting literature can be so depressing on the surface. It's a very different reading experience when I spend time with literary fiction instead of fantasy, romance, or YA, not quite so easygoing but I never feel burdened. If you're in the mood for something with a little something extra, magnificent prose and maybe a bit of exquisite heartbreak, I hope you try out some literary fiction.