The best hard-to-categorize novels

The Books I Picked & Why

The Memoirs of a Survivor

By Doris Lessing

Book cover of The Memoirs of a Survivor

Why this book?

Doris Lessing is one of the genuinely great authors of the 20th century. A true visionary, she moved effortlessly between naturalistic writing and her own unique variety of science fiction/fantasy—the latter written with such conviction that it seems completely real (while her naturalistic writing is so vivid is to seem almost more than real). In this book, a middle-aged woman looks out of her window at a civilization that is rapidly falling apart. As the woman retreats into her own inner world, a strange girl comes to live with her, bringing an animal called Hugo that is somewhere in between a dog and a cat. It’s a spell-binding piece of world-building and a reminder that everything that seems permanent will one day crumble.

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The Crystal World

By J.G. Ballard

Book cover of The Crystal World

Why this book?

Ballard is another of the great visionaries of the mid-twentieth century. His earlier books are often categorised as science fiction but have little in common with science fiction as most people understand it, and he himself increasingly distanced himself from the genre in the latter part of his career. The protagonist of The Crystal World arrives in a tropical forest which is gradually being taken over by a strange process that buries all living things—trees, birds, crocodiles, people—beneath a layer of bright crystals. It sounds bizarre, it sounds unlikely to be enough to fill up a whole book, but Ballard’s extraordinary visual imagination and his sense of atmosphere, make this a completely immersive experience.

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The Unconsoled

By Kazuo Ishiguro

Book cover of The Unconsoled

Why this book?

In this extraordinary novel, a famous pianist arrives in an unnamed middle European city to give a recital.  But he is constantly thwarted by events. The story works like one of those anxiety dreams in which you are trying to get somewhere, but can somehow never quite reach it. And this is not a coincidence because Ishiguro quite deliberately set out to write a novel that used the narrative devices of dreams to tell its story.  In dreams, for instance, we can open a door and step right through into a different part of town, or we can hear people’s thoughts, or stumble unexpectedly upon long-forgotten scenes from childhood. In dreams, one person can merge into another. All of this happens in a book that occupies its own, unique one-book genre.

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By C.S. Lewis

Book cover of Perelandra

Why this book?

C S Lewis is best known as the author of the Narnia books, but he wrote all kinds of books, including a science fiction trilogy of which Perelandra is the second (but freestanding) book. Elwin Ransom is summoned to a largely ocean-covered Venus, to take part in an epic struggle between good and evil.  Venus has its own Adam and Eve, who have not yet succumbed to temptation as Adam and Eve did on Earth, and Ransom’s task is to save them from the evil Professor Weston who has arrived on the planet with an agenda of his own. 

If this sounds like some sort of Christian allegory it is, but Lewis’s extraordinary imagination and unique worldbuilding skills make this a spellbinding story, whether you share his faith, or whether (like me) you don’t. So fresh and alive is his imaginary world, that it’s as if he reinvented science fiction from scratch to make a unique genre of his own.

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Good Behaviour

By Molly Keane

Book cover of Good Behaviour

Why this book?

Set among the dilapidated Anglo-Irish gentry in rural Ireland as they sink slowly into decline, what makes this book strange and unique among country house novels is the way it deals with its narrator. The daughter of a landowner in a big run-down house, in a social world dominated by horses and hunting, she sees what’s going on around her but fails to understand it, hemmed in by rules of behaviour that make many things simply impossible to name. We see that her brother is gay, for instance, but she never spots it, even when she walks in on her brother and his boyfriend in a state of undress, and she never finds her own way out of this strange doomed world. 

This book is darkly funny, tinged with gothic, and completely merciless.  No less a writer than Hilary Mantel has said she wishes she’d written this novel.

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