The best books about abusive and toxic relationships

Jenna Clake Author Of Disturbance
By Jenna Clake

Who am I?

I’m a poet, novelist, and Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Teesside University in the UK. I like to write and read about particularly gender power dynamics, and how those come to play in domestic situations. I love lyrical novels and books that explore characters’ interiority, and I’m interested in how, generally speaking, ‘toxic’ and ‘abusive’ relationships have become synonymous – even though they are quite different. These novels helped me write my own, and I hope you’ll enjoy reading them as much as I did!

I wrote...


By Jenna Clake,

Book cover of Disturbance

What is my book about?

As the sun sets on a feverishly hot July evening, a young woman spies on her teenage neighbor, transfixed by what looks like an occult ritual intended to banish an ex-boyfriend. Alone in a new town and desperate to expel the claustrophobic memories of her own ex that have followed, the narrator decides to try to hex herself free from her past. She falls in with the neighbor and her witchy friend, exploring nascent supernatural powers as the boundaries of reality shift in and out of focus. But when the creaks and hums of her apartment escalate into something more violent, she realizes that she may have brought her boyfriend’s presence―whether psychological or paranormal―back to haunt her.

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The books I picked & why

First Love

By Gwendoline Riley,

Book cover of First Love

Why did I love this book?

This might be one of my favourite books of all time.

Riley’s prose is exquisite – pared back, yet lyrical – and her dialogue is unmatched. Neve has married Edwyn, an older and more financially stable man. As Neve thinks about all the decisions and circumstances that led to her marriage – including trying to escape her bully of a father and her intense and naïve mother – Riley deftly and subtly details cycles of abuse and neglect.

Edwyn has terrible moods, which Neve excuses, and for which she blames herself. Riley truly understands and captures the psychology of loving and making excuses for an abusive partner or family member. 

By Gwendoline Riley,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked First Love as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'A singular, devastating journey into the ungovernable reaches of the heart' Observer


Neve is a writer in her mid-30s married to an older man, Edwyn. For now they are in a place of relative peace, but their past battles have left scars. As Neve recalls the decisions that led her to this marriage, she tells of other loves and other debts, from her bullying father and her self-involved mother to a musician who played her and a series of lonely flights from place to place.

Drawing the reader into the battleground…

When I Hit You

By Meena Kandasamy,

Book cover of When I Hit You

Why did I love this book?

When I Hit You is a shattering and visceral account of a woman’s short-lived but harrowing abusive marriage, her family’s determination that she stay in that marriage, and her family’s way of understanding her ordeal once she has escaped.

Kandasamy writes with brutal detail of the husband’s total control of the narrator, who tries again and again to understand her experiences – and escape from them – through her writing. It is a powerful novel about resilience, courage, and determination, which, despite its subject matter, avoids sensationalism.

By Meena Kandasamy,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked When I Hit You as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


Guardian's Best Books of 2017
Daily Telegraph's Best Books of 2017
Observer Best Books of 2017
Financial Times Best Books of 2017

"Meena Kandasamy's vivid, sharp and precise writing makes a triumph of When I Hit You: Or, a Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife(Atlantic)"- Guardian

Seduced by politics, poetry and an enduring dream of building a better world together, the unnamed narrator falls in love with a university professor. Moving with him to a rain-washed coastal…

Second Place

By Rachel Cusk,

Book cover of Second Place

Why did I love this book?

Sometimes the most toxic relationships are born out of an all-consuming desire to become friends (or more).

So is the case for the narrator of Second Place, M, who becomes obsessed with impressing an artist, L, who stays in her home during the COVID-19 pandemic. L is an awful guest, but M is cringe-worthy in her attempts to impress him, as she begins to reflect on her relationship with her daughter, her husband, and her own body.

The novel is indebted to the Mabel Dodge Luhan’s 1932 memoir Lorenzo in Taos, about DH Lawrence’s stay at her artists’ colony in New Mexico. Lawrence threatened to ‘destroy’ his hostess, as L threatens M in this novel. With every twist and turn, Second Place becomes more surreal, horrifying, and darkly humorous.

By Rachel Cusk,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Second Place as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A haunting fable of art, family, and fate from the author of the Outline trilogy.

A woman invites a famous artist to use her guesthouse in the remote coastal landscape where she lives with her family. Powerfully drawn to his paintings, she believes his vision might penetrate the mystery at the center of her life. But as a long, dry summer sets in, his provocative presence itself becomes an enigma―and disrupts the calm of her secluded household.

Second Place, Rachel Cusk’s electrifying new novel, is a study of female fate and male privilege, the geometries of human relationships, and the…

Asylum Road

By Olivia Sudjic,

Book cover of Asylum Road

Why did I love this book?

Anya and Luke like to listen to true crime podcasts together, but they refuse to share much else: Anya tries to hide her body hair, her family, how she escaped from Sarajevo, and her concern that Luke will leave her.

Luke is stoical, difficult to read, and Anya feels isolated from his wealthy, middle-class English family. When they get engaged, it seems as though Anya might finally be able to settle, but the declaration of commitment only sets off a series of events, estrangements, and secrets that will unravel Anya’s world.

With the tension and pacing of a thriller, and the introspection of a woman who has only known precarity, Sudjic’s novel is terrifying and gripping. 

By Olivia Sudjic,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Asylum Road as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'An eerily familiar reflection of our current moment ... It continues to haunt me' NATASHA BROWN, I PAPER BOOKS OF THE YEAR
'I will go wherever she takes me. A phenomenal book' DAISY JOHNSON
'A brilliant, scalding novel ... sharp, intricately layered, impossible to forget' MEGAN HUNTER
'Stunning ... beautifully written and deeply unsettling' BOOKSELLER, EDITOR'S CHOICE


A couple drive from London to coastal Provence. Anya is preoccupied with what she feels is a relationship…

The Incendiaries

By R.O. Kwon,

Book cover of The Incendiaries

Why did I love this book?

This novel is a masterclass in unreliable narration. It follows Will, a young man estranged from his family and religion, as he attends college and falls in love with Phoebe.

As Will takes over and narrates his recollections of their relationship, Phoebe’s friendship with a man named John Leal, and her inculcation into a religious cult, he becomes increasingly untrustworthy. Will rails against John Leal, his lies, and the damage he has done to Phoebe, revealing his complicity in toxic masculinity and his own harmful actions.

Kwon renders her characters as entirely believable, frightening people, in lyrical and considered prose.

By R.O. Kwon,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Incendiaries as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'R. O. Kwon is the real deal' LAUREN GROFF

'Absolutely electric . . . Everyone should read this book' GARTH GREENWELL

'Every explosive requires a fuse. That's R. O. Kwon's novel, a straight, slow-burning fuse' VIET THANH NGUYEN

'In dazzlingly acrobatic prose, R. O. Kwon explores the lines between faith and fanaticism, passion and violence, the rational and the unknowable' CELESTE NG

'A sharp, little novel as hard to ignore as a splinter in your eye' WASHINGTON POST

'Raw and finely wrought' NEW YORK TIMES

'The Incendiaries packs a disruptive charge, and introduces R. O. Kwon as a major talent'…

5 book lists we think you will like!

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