Cool Stuff from the Selectors: Complex characters for complex times

I think that we can all agree that these are strange times.  

At the start of lockdown, many of us were getting creative, keeping up the exercise, showing positivity, getting outside and almost making the most of it. As time has gone on we are being encouraged to do what we need or please, so If I want to sit on the coach all day eating the Easter eggs that I actually bought for my children well that's just fine! As fiction selector, I have noticed that I have gone through my own process when looking at fiction to read or buy. I started off thinking about the titles that had a positive vibe, people overcoming adversity, perhaps seen as flawed by society but somehow managing to make the best of their lives. Our UPLIT booklist has a good number of these titles to get into.

However as time has gone on I seem to have had my lot with positivity, and have been thinking about those titles I have read over the years where the characters are not only fascinatingly flawed but are rather unpleasant. Reading these books can be frustrating as the characters often behave appallingly, but at the same time they are the people you love to hate.

Complex characters for complex times

List created by naneek

If you want to read about nice characters doing good things then this is not the booklist for you! If you prefer your characters to be complex, at times unlikeable but always interesting, then you should find something to suit you from this list

Two Characters, Barbara, an older established school teacher and Sheba the new recruit. Both needy, both making bad decisions, completely different people who start to rely on each other, but in the most codependent creepy way imaginable. It is hard to work out who behave the worst! Made into a film with Dame Judi Dench playing Barbara and Cate Blanchett playing Sheba.

Another title by Zoe Heller. Some writers just seem to have the ability to delve deep into the psyche of flawed characters and the family in this book are no exception. Joel is a radical New York Lawyer loved and admired by all who know him and especially by his wife Audrey. When he is found to be having an affair you want to go into bat for Audrey, or maybe his family, but they are all ghastly - but in the most interesting way!

Lionel Shriver is most well known for her book We Need to Talk About Kevin - which possibly has some of the worst characters in modern literature. But don't stop here, all of Shrivers' books push the limits of what makes a good or a bad person, and Big Brother is no exception. Fletcher is a self obsessed crazed exerciser married to Pandora, who is determined for the sake of her marriage to turn her overstayer brother Edison from slovenly, fat and over opinionated into a new slimlined version which fits far more conveniently into her version of "healthy". It doesn't end well...

Jean Taylor is the wife of a man labelled a monster. Glen Taylor was accused of heinous crimes, implicated in the disappearance of two-year-old Bella Elliot, snatched from her front garden four years ago. But now he's dead and Jean Taylor is finally ready to tell her story, but Jean is not the most reliable or the most likeable, was Glen quite the person she portrays or was she in fact the monster?

Are there any characters in this book that it is possible to really like - yes - but they are few and far between. When a friend slaps a child that is not his own at a barbecue you would think it would be fairly cut and dried as to who is at fault, I mean you just can go around slapping other peoples children - or is the child so insufferable and the parents even worse that perhaps sometimes it is ok? This and bigger questions are dealt with and have you questioning everything you believe about what is right and what is wrong.

Briseis was queen of one of Troy's neighbouring kingdoms, until Achilles, Greece's greatest warrior, sacked her city and murdered her husband and brothers. Briseis becomes Achilles's concubine, and although this book is primarily her story, it also offers insight into a brutal man who is nuanced and complex.

A series of interlinked stories about a small town in Maine in which Olive Kitteridge either features or has a small part to play. You can be assured that you will have a reaction to this book, be it good or bad as many reviewers have either loved the flawed characters, especially Olive, or have found them all perfectly hateful.

If you enjoy books that involve complex relationships and a fair amount of introspection then you will enjoy this earlier title by Sally Rooney of Booker Prize fame. All of the characters have their good and bad sides equally exposed, they are impossible not to like yet frustration levels mount as they continue to make some appalling decisions that involve feminist politics, power dynamics and a fair amount of navel gazing.

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Two titles that I have yet to add to this list as they are not available on eBook at present are Death of a She Devil by Fay Weldon and Disgrace by J.M Coetzee. I read these books many years ago but both have characters that have stayed with me.

Death of a She Devil:

But this is wonderful! This is exhilarating! If you are a she-devil, the mind clears at once. The spirits rise. There is no shame, no guilt, no dreary striving to be good. There is only, in the end, what you want . And I can take what I want. I am a she-devil!"

 I want revenge. I want power. I want money. I want to be loved and not love in return.


“he knows too much about himself to subject her to a morning after, when he will be cold, surly, impatient to be alone.”
“His mind has become a refuge for old thoughts, idle, indigent, with nowhere else to go. He ought to chase them out, sweep the premises clean. But he does not care to do so, or does not care enough"
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