As someone who loves books, I tend to gravitate towards those that are centred around social and political issues; gender, class, racism and mental health. Although they aren’t the most light-hearted reads, they do provide a realistic and fascinating view of the kind of world we’re living in.
So, these are my current favourite books written by women who discuss these things.
1. The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison
“He need not waste the effort of a glance. He does not see her, because for him there is nothing to see.”
“This soil is bad for certain kinds of flowers. Certain seeds it will not nurture, certain fruit it will not bear, and when the land kills of its own volition, we acquiesce and say the victim had no right to live.”
This novel focuses on Pecola Breedlove, an 11-year-old African American girl, as well as her community during the Great Depression. Their stories are told from the perspective of innocent 9-year-old Claudia who, upon experiencing and witnessing racial abuse, questions and condemns the reasons for derogatory stereotypes and the social conviction that white people are cleaner and prettier than black people. Headstrong in her beliefs regarding race, Claudia contradicts the other black female characters who accept and endure their belittlement.
For example, the title reflects Pecola’s wish for blue eyes because she believes she’ll be able to see beauty in the callous world she’s exploited in, and others will perceive her with a sense of humanity. She’s internalised the prejudice and so she’s unable to stand up for herself. A common trait amongst the characters. Morrison depicts that racism breeds self-hatred, leaving victims with a pessimistic and demeaning view of themselves.
Trigger warnings: racism, misogyny, alcohol abuse, domestic abuse, sexual abuse, rape, incest and death.
2. Pachinko – Min Jin Lee
“For a woman, the man you marry will determine the quality of your life completely. A good man is a decent life, and a bad man is a cursed life—but no matter what, always expect suffering, and just keep working hard. No one will take care of a poor woman—just ourselves.”
“Living everyday in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage.”
The amalgamation of the Korean and Japanese is the focal point of this novel as Min Jin Lee explores political rule, war, identity, the clash of culture and language, and familial unity. This heart-rending book begins with the characters Hoonie and Yangjin and their daughter Sunja during the Japanese occupation of Korea. We follow their descendants for the next 79 years trying to live and flourish in Japan, a country that denies them acceptance.
As the years progress, we see women evolving and becoming independent with progressive ideas and opinions, however, there’s still an emphasis on their suffering; a woman’s role in the family and the arduous task of providing and surviving for them is a prominent theme throughout. Also, trying to be a son, a husband and a father when inevitably faced with a moral crisis is another topic this novel delves into, and both gender representations of hardships are portrayed excellently.
From love and ambition to sacrifice and degradation, this piece of historical fiction captures the beautiful moments and the sorrows of the Koreans and Japanese of the 1900s.
Trigger warnings: war, racism, xenophobia, misogyny, paedophilia, suicide, death, alcoholism and domestic abuse.
3. The Beekeeper of Aleppo – Christy Lefteri
“But what I loved most was her laugh. She laughed like we would never die.”
“Sometimes we create such powerful illusions, so that we do not get lost in the darkness.”
Based on the Syrian Civil War, this second historical novel portrays the journey of Syrian refugees from Aleppo to the UK. The main protagonist is beekeeper Nuri who is married to an artist, Afra, and is Sami’s father. Throughout the book, he tries to keep his family alive and safe and endeavours to reconnect with Mustafa, his cousin. There is a constant shift between Nuri’s current life in the UK, his journey getting there, and pre-war which exhibit the ordeals of being a refugee. Not only does the war impact his mental health, but we also see its effect on his relationship with his wife and her struggles after becoming blind.
Lefteri’s inspiration for this book is drawn from her time working at a refugee centre in Athens, as well as being the daughter of Cypriot refugees. Therefore, she effectively captures the need for survival and safety of those who are living in exile with the repercussions of trauma. It’s heartbreaking, reflective and portrays the emotional and physical turmoil of being a refugee.
Trigger warnings: war, gun violence, death, rape and mental illness.
4. The Handmaids Tale – Margaret Atwood
“A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere, as long as it stays inside the maze.”
“We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print…it gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories.”
Before becoming a widely popular TV series, I read The Handmaid’s Tale for A-Levels and it’s remained one of my favourite books. Set in the near future, a Christian fundamentalist totalitarian regime is taking over the USA and depriving women of their rights. Due to an infertility crisis, women are segregated into different categories based on their fertility, race, and social status. This place is called Gilead.
The white fertile women are Handmaids for couples that can’t conceive. Handmaid Offred is the novel’s protagonist and we gain an insight into what her life is like; rape, public executions, exploitation, rebellion. The dynamic between the Handmaids, the Wives and the Commanders (the husbands) is also quintessential as it’s contrasted with Offred’s nostalgia for her past, her family and her lost freedom.
We see Offred battling with an identity crisis and her mental health throughout as she never imagined that she’d be subjected to a life in which she is redefined and objectified, Atwood demonstrating that it’s a life that’s possible. All aspects of the novel are taken from real-life historical events. Atwood depicts that if fundamentalists and the patriarchy continue to hold political power then Gilead is a place that can come to life. It’s fiction that can someday become reality.
Trigger warnings: misogyny, rape, prostitution, racism, anti-Semitism, suicide and death.
5. The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
“That’s one of the reasons I never wanted to get married. The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the colored arrows from a Fourth of July rocket.”
“The floor seemed wonderfully solid. It was comforting to know I had fallen and could fall no farther.”
This evocatively written novel (one of my absolute favourites) focuses on the life of Esther Greenwood, an aspiring poet and college student who travels to New York for a magazine internship. We follow her throughout her encounters with family, friendships, sexuality and societal expectations upon women. Mental illness is a key motif in this novel as we see the protagonist trying to make sense of the chaos her life has become – a consequence of past wounding events and society’s current convictions.
The bell jar symbolises how society, particularly women, are trapped within a restrictive status quo and Esther strives to navigate her way out for freedom. It also represents the notion of feeling trapped in her own head, her thoughts and self-doubts as the obstacles to happiness. And as someone who struggled with mental health herself, Sylvia Plath beautifully portrayed the raw reality of self-destruction, battling between the longing for survival and permanent release.
Trigger warnings: misogyny, mental illness, suicide, self-harm and death.
In the past year, my goal was to read more books and by doing that came a discovery and newfound love of an array of genres. The books above have enhanced my perspective of the world, and I hope they’ll help some people step further into the world of reading and explore.
Words by: Manhaaza Ashfaq
Edited by: Olivia Davies