The best novels where you need to read between the lines to get the point

Simon Edge Author Of The End of the World Is Flat
By Simon Edge

The Books I Picked & Why

Of Human Bondage

By W. Somerset Maugham

Book cover of Of Human Bondage

Why this book?

I first read Maugham’s 1916 semi-autobiographical novel in the sixth form. It describes late-Victorian adolescence and early manhood but, from my self-absorbed point of view as an Eighties teenager, it could have been written specially for me.

The one element that jarred was Mildred, the waitress with whom Philip Carey falls madly and inappropriately (because of their class difference) in love. Maugham makes her so ghastly, it’s hard to know what his hero sees in her.

Her character makes much more sense when you know (as I didn’t at the time) that the author was discreetly gay. Maugham’s own transgression was to fall for lovers not of the wrong social standing, but the wrong sex. Once you realise that, Philip’s anguished passion becomes much more believable.

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Goodbye to Berlin

By Christopher Isherwood

Book cover of Goodbye to Berlin

Why this book?

Introducing the character of Sally Bowles, Goodbye to Berlin was adapted into the musical Cabaret, a byword for high-kicking razzmatazz. The novel itself is a different kind of gem: an entrancing, wistful portrait of the last days of Weimar as the Nazis prepare for power.

A series of episodes observed by the narrator, it’s based on the author’s own years in Berlin. ‘Sally Bowles’ was a real person (who spent the rest of her life trying to get away from the character). The one thing Isherwood changed was his own sexuality. He becomes a passive observer of other gay characters; how else could he have written it in 1939? The fact that the real Christopher was anything but detached makes his achievement in this understated novel all the greater.

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The Heart of a Dog

By Mikhail Bulgakov, Mirra Ginsburg

Book cover of The Heart of a Dog

Why this book?

Bulgakov, a Russian born in Kyiv, wrote The Heart of a Dog in 1925 when the Soviet Union was in its infancy. It’s the breezy tale of a surgeon who transplants a human gland into a stray dog, turning an amiable mutt into a vile man.

There’s a punning reference to Stalin in the name of the least flattering character, and the author was clearly inviting his readers to read between the lines: this was an early satire on the Bolshevik social experiment.

It was rejected for publication and circulated instead in samizdat form. Remarkably though, Stalin took the writer under his wing and, while Bulgakov died young, he did so in his own bed. A political satirist can get away with a lot if they do it with charm.

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Animal Farm

By George Orwell

Book cover of Animal Farm

Why this book?

Like Bulgakov, Orwell chose to critique Stalinist Russia via satirical allegory. In 1940s Britain, the liberal intelligentsia was hugely sympathetic to the Soviet Union and it was near-impossible to publish anything overtly critical.

The novella works because it’s witty and accessible. The animals are three-dimensional characters, not just ciphers for Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, etc. I’ve never got on with Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which I find too heavy-handed. Animal Farm, by contrast, is done with a lightness of touch that makes it as fresh as the day it was written.

My own novel satirises a lobbying campaign that rewrites history to suit its own narrative and maintains control via cultish mantras, just as Napoleon and Squealer do in Animal Farm. For me, Orwell is as relevant as ever.

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The Pyramid

By Ismail Kadare

Book cover of The Pyramid

Why this book?

He’s now based in Paris, but Kadare lived much of his life under the rule of Albanian despot Enver Hoxha, who made the rest of the Eastern Bloc look like a holiday camp.

The Pyramid is set in ancient Egypt, where the Pharoah Cheops commissions the tallest-ever pyramid. He doesn’t really want one, but his advisers argue it’s a good way of keeping his population permanently involved in back-breaking labour so they have no energy to revolt.

Dozens of labourers, as dispensable as ants, die with each stone laid. What’s striking is the flippant, ironic tone of the narrative. Kadare is writing for fellow Albanians who know how cheap life can be; there’s no need to dwell on the human suffering, which is an unspoken given.

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