November 1st: Genre Benders: Books that defy genre or are hard to place in a certain category.
I haven’t done one of these in a while… and this post will be rather hastily written since the prompt was only posted today, but I like this topic, so let’s see.
All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld. This book is difficult to describe… it’s about an Australian sheep farmer who’s living in isolation on the English coast, running from a mysterious event in her past. It combines elements from several genres: mystery/thriller, magical realism, literary fiction, paranormal fantasy (sort of)… it didn’t quite come together in a completely satisfying way for me, but I’m struck by how ambitious this novel is for being so short. If this sounds like it appeals to you, it’s worth a read, because it has many glowing reviews from people who really connected with it.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. I still can’t work out how I felt about this book, but I’d be remiss not to include it. This year’s Man Booker winner is a bizarre fusion of historical fiction and literary fiction, and then Saunders takes it a step further by experimenting with the format of the book itself. It’s part novel, part poetry, part play… it’s unlike anything I’ve ever read. Lincoln in the Bardo is ostensibly about the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, but it’s also more than that – it’s kind of an elaborate rumination on life and death and the afterlife.
If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio. A group of Shakespeare students at a classical conservatory fractures when their group dynamic is forcefully changed, and one ends up dead. Rio is hardly the first to write an academic literary thriller (the notable pioneer of this subgenre is Donna Tartt’s The Secret History), but If We Were Villains is still noteworthy as it’s infused with references and direct quotes from the works of Shakespeare, adding another dimension to this novel’s tricky classification. It’s one of those books where thriller fans may expect a bit more thrill, and literary fans may expect a bit more Literature, but if you embrace the balance that Rio strikes, it’s a fun and rewarding novel.
Bright Air Black by David Vann. Another novel that deals in experimental prose, Bright Air Black is a retelling of the story of Medea and Jason. Part historical fiction, part literary fiction, part mythology, I’m not sure how I’d ultimately end up classifying this book… Another interesting element to it is that it frames Medea is ultimately a sympathetic and redemptive light (without minimizing her vengeful nature), so there’s also an undoubtedly feminist spin to this novel – so it’s also worth reading from the perspective of anyone who’s interested in feminist fiction.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang. I guess in a way this book is easily classified as ‘literary fiction,’ but I can’t help but to feel like that label is a gross simplification of this novel’s contents. This is unlike anything I’ve ever read before or since. It’s about a woman who reacts to a violent dream by deciding to become vegetarian… which sounds simple, but this is a book which doesn’t adhere to genre conventions. It’s really a series of three novellas, each of which are from the POV of a different character, and rather than plot and character development, the focus of this novel is much more metaphorical and cerebral, raising questions about mental health and societal expectations and female sexuality. (Which – if you read my recent review of War and Peace – you know I usually prefer character development over anything. But somehow, the way Han Kang pushes boundaries in this novel is so rewarding to explore.)
What are some genre benders that you’ve read and enjoyed? Comment and let me know!