7 Campus Novels to Read this Admission Season

There is something dark, exciting and just a little bit naughty about college life, with a liminality or ‘in-betweenness’ that has continually been an irresistible and potent playground for writers of all ages. From A.S. Byatt’s all-time classic to Mona Awad’s modern masterwork, here are seven novels set in real and imagined colleges and universities that explore and encapsulate life at the campus in all its revelations, contradictions, discoveries and disappointments:

Possession by A.S. Byatt

English author A.S. Byatt’s 1990 Booker Prize-winning novel Possession: A Romance was the book that began the dark academia sub-genre. At once a romance and a mystery, centred on themes of obsession, guilt, love, passion, infidelity, and the transformative power of the written word, Possession subverted many generic tropes when it was first released in 1990. The central plot of the novel concerns the extramarital love affair between two fictional Victorian poets: Randolph Henry Ash (loosely based on English poets Robert Browning and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, poet-laureate to Queen Victoria), and Christabel LaMotte (based on Christina Rossetti). With a relationship that mirrors that of modern-day academics Roland Michell and Maud Bailey, who are trying to uncover the truth about Ash and LaMotte’s relationship, the novel follows a trail of clues from archival letters and journals that must be followed by the protagonists’ before their colleagues and competitors beat them to it.

Disorientation by Elaine Hsieh Chou

Elaine Hsieh Chou’s debut novel Disorientation is a hilarious satire of graduate-school life, Asian-American overachievers, and the peculiar injustices of high academia. Disorientation follows twenty-nine-year-old Taiwanese-American PhD student Ingrid Yang’s desperate rush to finish her dissertation on the late canonical Chinese poet Xiao-Wen Chou. When she discovers a curious note in the Chou archives, her clumsy exploits to unravel the note’s message lead to an explosive discovery, upending her sheltered life within academia and her entire world beyond it. From book burnings and drug-induced hallucinations to hot-button protests, and the rise of anti-Asian propaganda in the USA, Disorientation satirises privilege and power in American Academia, and questions who gets to tell BIPOC stories, speaking to the powerful shift that occurs when people of colour finally tell their stories themselves.

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

In a departure from the morbidity of mass self-slaughter in his first novel The Virgin Suicides and the exploration of incest and intersexuality in his Pulitzer Prize-winning sophomore outing Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides turned to the marriage institution and its implications in his third novel The Marriage Plot. Primarily set in Brown University in the 1980s, the novel largely (though not entirely) dispenses with the grotesque elements of Eugenides’s previous novels as it focuses on three bright, young Ivy Leaguers, Madeleine Hanna, Leonard Bankhead, and Mitchell Grammaticus, following their love entanglements and spiritual crises as they pursue and escape each other from Cape Cod to Calcutta.

The Laughter by Sonora Jha

Sonora Jha’s second novel The Laughter explores how ‘otherness’ is exoticised, fetishised, and demonised. It is about what it means to love something — a person or a country — that does not love you back, forcing you to confront the assumptions we make about class, privilege, radicalisation, and modern academia, in our capacity as readers and citizens. The novel follows Dr. Oliver Harding, a white, male, tenured professor of English, and his obsession with colleague Ruhaba Khan, a dynamic Pakistani Muslim law professor. Harding becomes a mentor to her nephew Adil in an attempt to draw closer to her, and in getting to know them, discovers their core differences and their powerful implications. As Ruhaba actively engages with the spirited student movement demanding more diversity across the university, Harding must learn how to reconcile his discomfort with the worlds from which they come and accept the encroaching change they represent. A masterful portrait of the depth of loneliness, the subjectivity of innocence, and the looming peril of white rage in America, The Laughter shocks, devastates, and lingers long after you’ve turned over the last page.

The Lovers by Amitava Kumar

A modern love story set in the murky terrain of high academia, immigration, desire, and cultural mishaps, Amitava Kumar’s The Lovers follows his alter-ego Kailash, sometimes teasingly called Kalashnikov, AK-47, or even simply AK by his friends, through his years at a university in New York as he experiences the bittersweet arc of young love. This is a novel of discovery and disappointment. Replete with brilliant women characters: Jennifer, Nina, and Cai Yan, a fully furnished context of campus politics and its many textures, and a winning characterisation of the charismatic professor/ mentor-figure in Ehsaan Ali (loosely based on the Pakistani political scientist, writer, and academic Eqbal Ahmad), The Lovers retains the best and most poignant parts of contemporary campus culture. Capturing AK’s first years and first loves in America, in all of the wild enthusiasm of youth, its idealism, and its chaotic desires and confusions, the novel is a memento from a time and life that is intimately known, cherished and thus recognised by all.

The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon

R.O. Kwon’s 2018 novel The Incendiaries follows a young woman who is indoctrinated and recruited into a cult at Edwards University in Noxhurst, a fictional town in upstate New York. Narrated by three characters who meet at Edwards: Phoebe Lin, the young South Korean-born American woman who is recruited; John Leal, the mysterious half-Korean Edwards-dropout activist who recruits her; and Will Kendall, a fellow student who is in a relationship with Phoebe and struggles to understand the choices she makes, the novel is contained within these three lives and their varying perspectives.

Bunny by Mona Awad

Mona Awad’s 2022 novel Bunny introduces us to Samantha Heather Mackey, a socially awkward graduate student at the highly selected MFA program at Warren University, an elite New England University, as she navigates the cutthroat world of academia. Samantha finds herself drawn to a clique of privileged, glamorous, unbearable rich girls who call each other ‘Bunny.’ Samantha finds herself inexplicably drawn to ‘The Bunnies’, with their peculiar rituals and eerie camaraderie, and is inevitably unable to refuse their invitation to join, crossing the threshold and falling down the mad rabbit hole that is attached to the offer. As she becomes increasingly entangled with them, Samantha discovers a dark and surreal underbelly to their world, blurring the lines between reality and nightmare.

Pick up any of these 7 Campus Novels for Admission Season from any Kunzum store or WhatsApp +91.8800200280 to order. Buy the book(s) and the coffee’s on us.

Drishya Maity

About the Reviewer:

Drishya (he/him ⸱ b. 1997) is a writer + artist based in Kolkata, India. He was shortlisted for the Mogford Prize for Food & Drink Writing, nominated for the BBA Photography Prize – One Shot Award in 2022, and selected for the ICA Long Form Food Writing Mentorship in 2024. He is @drishyadotxyz on Instagram and X.

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