The best books with “difficult” protagonists

Charlene Challenger Author Of The Voices In Between
By Charlene Challenger

The Books I Picked & Why

Never Let Me Go

By Kazuo Ishiguro

Book cover of Never Let Me Go

Why this book?

Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth are boarding school students of Hailsham, where they are educated and protected by adults known as “guardians.” The students of Hailsham are clones, bred so that their organs will one day be harvested and donated. Donations are made until the clone “completes” – a euphemism for their inevitable death. Despite knowing this, Kathy, the narrator of the novel, and the other characters accept their fates. They don’t protest or rise against the system that sees them as commodities; instead, they choose to distract themselves by creating and maintaining an insular mythos about their world. That Kathy tacitly consents to her own destruction is perhaps the most difficult aspect of the novel to accept. Never Let Me Go is an incredible, heartbreaking masterpiece. 

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The Door in the Mountain (The Ariadne Series)

By Caitlin Sweet

Book cover of The Door in the Mountain (The Ariadne Series)

Why this book?

Set against a beautiful, violent landscape, The Door in the Mountain is the story of Ariadne, a young princess navigating her culture’s customs and her personal responsibilities. In Ariadne’s world, the course of one’s life is determined by whether one has a “godmark” – a special gift or ability granted by the heavens. Ariadne desperately wants to be godmarked like her brother and parents. That desperation fuels a mean streak that, at times, turns to downright cruelty. Caitlin Sweet is a master of characterization, and as a reader, I can’t help but sympathize with Ariadne’s longing to fit in with her family – to be considered their equal in all aspects – even when her words and actions are despicable to those around her. 

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By Vladimir Nabokov

Book cover of Lolita

Why this book?

Lolita features one of the most hateful of all protagonists in 20th century literature. A sniveling, sputtering hypocrite, Humbert Humbert gleefully hangs his misanthropy, his frustrated sexuality, his pathetic mediocrity, around the neck of a child, and changes the course of her life forever. That Humbert is a pedophile is undeniable; that he unapologetically recounts his crimes with such beautiful lyricism is truly terrifying. The novel is best read with a modern lens. This is not, as is so often touted, a controversial love story; it is a brilliant, unnerving satire about western patriarchy and rape culture that grows more and more disturbing as time goes on.

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By Hanif Kureishi

Book cover of Intimacy

Why this book?

Jay, a selfish, self-absorbed screenwriter, reflects on his failings as a lover, husband, and friend on the eve of leaving his wife and children. From the way Jay describes his marriage and his approach to fatherhood, it’s clear he’s more than willing to throw his comfortable life away and damage three innocent people for no other reason than he’s bored, shallow, and desperate to blame his incompetency on those closest to him. What keeps the reader engaged is how painfully funny it all is – Jay’s obliviousness provides ample opportunity for mature audiences to chuckle and shake their heads at every meanspirited quip he makes at his family’s expense. By the end of the book, readers can only feel relief that he’s done them an incredible, and long overdue, service.

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A Christmas Carol

By Charles Dickens

Book cover of A Christmas Carol

Why this book?

At once ghost story and scathing social commentary, this holiday classic recounts the night Ebeneezer Scrooge is visited by three spirits concerned with his welfare. Scarred by his experience growing up in a miserable boarding school, Scrooge rejects kindness toward his fellow man in favour of the financial gain afforded him by the industrial revolution. Over the course of the evening, the spirits show Scrooge the life he came from, the life he has, and the kind of death that awaits him if he fails to reconnect with his humanity. Scrooge speaks one of the cruelest lines of dialogue in English literature: “If they would rather die, they’d better do it, and decrease the surplus population." That we continue to root for his redemption is a testament to Dickens’ genius. 

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