Looking for your next favourite protagonist? Well, we got you covered. From ancient goddesses to small-town neighbours, and a host of mad-cap but seemingly innocuous characters, our range of delightful character-driven novels will introduce you to worlds known and unknown. An eclectic selection of some of the most original in recent-year literature, these books promise to be your next best read!
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
Ove has been a grumpy old man since the first day of second grade. He believes in right and wrong and lives life by a code of rules and of things being just so. That he protects the softest of hearts is a secret he jealously guards, even more so now when his beloved wife, who was all the colour in his life, is gone. But he has another secret. An act he keeps putting off. First, because of a meddling universe, and later because he can’t quite let go of something– the knowledge of which has brought him the only comfort he’s had since his wife’s passing, even if he knows that he won’t go through with it now. This is the story of life, a grieving man, a street of people whom you’d think you know but you don’t, not really, and how sometimes you may think you know how something is going to end, but what do they say about the best-laid plans?
Circe by Madeline Miller
“When I was born, the word for what I was did not exist.” Thus we are introduced to a yellow-eyed Circe, daughter of Helios, the Titan of the Sun, and the nymph Perse. From the start, this firstborn is held to be something different and is never made to forget her seeming lack of useful skill, especially when compared to the siblings that follow: Pasiphae, Perses, and Aeetes. Until she discovers the hidden powers that flow through her veins and makes a terrible choice that leads to a permanent exile in the middle-of-nowhere island of Aiaia. There, she is forced to make hard decisions, learn more about herself, and hope to find some peace and belonging in those long years of eternal life. We know everything that is going to happen, and yet this story is fresh, unexpected and engaging. It is hard not to root for this complex and compelling minor goddess brought so vividly to life by Miller’s sharp pen.
Still Life by Sarah Winman
This at-times fable-like love letter to post-WWII Florence, to art and humanity, is a slow-burn character-centric narrative of the very best kind. Find how family, love, and beauty in all its forms are triggered into motion by a chance encounter in 1944 Tuscany between Ulysses Temper, a young English soldier, and Evelyn Skinner, a middle-aged art historian there to salvage paintings from the ruins. Knee-deep in the bombs and rubble of a war-torn Italy, both find a kindred spirit in the other, not knowing just how much of their meeting would shape the next four decades of Ulysses’s life, as he goes back home to London after the war, returns to Italy where it all began, and where it all promises to continue. There is a large supporting cast of some of the most three-dimensional characters you’ll ever meet within the pages of a book, including an opinionated parrot named Claude.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Eleanor Oliphant handles accounts receivables in a graphic design office in Glasgow. She struggles with social cues and interactions, says exactly what she thinks, and has a clockwork weekly routine. And, most pertinently, she is, as the helpful title informs us, completely fine, thank you very much. Then, two things happen that change her life forever. She meets Raymond, the nice well well-meaning but bumbling guy in IT, and she goes to a concert, believing she has found “The One” in Johnnie Lomond, a local up-and-coming singer. It triggers a journey that will force her to deal with her very troubled past and make her realise that life can be beautiful.
Brooklyn by Colm Toibin
Spanning Ireland and Brooklyn in the early 1950s, this is a gracefully narrated coming-of-age story of a young woman, one Eilis Lacey, who must cross an ocean to find her destiny, leaving behind her life and family (a mother and a sister) in the small Irish town of Enniscorthy. Eilis has long chafed under the mundane and foregone nature of her life in a town where the economy is miserable and opportunities few, especially for a smart, young woman who’s a more than competent bookkeeper. So when a chance arrives for her to be sponsored by an Irish priest in Brooklyn, Eilis takes it.
Once there, she lives in a boarding house and gets a job at a department store on Fulton Street. Then, when she least expects it, there is Tony, a charismatic blond Italian from a big family who’s instantly smitten with our protagonist. As Eilis builds a new, promising life in a country far away from her roots, tragic news from home will threaten to bring it all crashing down, and she will face a choice that will hurt someone no matter what she does. This is a slow, often quiet and contemplative, novel with an engaging character portrait at its core.
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
“Olive Kitteridge” is a “novel in stories” that revolves around the primary character even when it seemingly doesn’t. The formidable Olive makes her presence felt in the lives of all the folks in the small coastal town of Crosby, Maine—and it is this wide range of her facets that when brought together, piece by piece, displays an extremely complex, sometimes confusing, many times aggravating, portrait of a woman who is as flawed as she is human, as kind as she is cruel and frustrating, as strong as she is vulnerable and lost. This isn’t the easiest or the happiest of reads at times. It’s often upsetting and its characters unlikeable (including Olive on many occasions), but this thoughtful, sensitive narrative about, ultimately, the resilience of human nature against all odds, also has quiet moments of beauty and the realisation that life has more of those than we may think or capture.
Family Lore by Elizabeth Acevedo
Flor Martes has always had an affinity with the spirit world, always knowing when or how someone would pass. When she decides to throw herself a living wake, everyone wonders if this is it for their sister, their mother, or their aunt. Her daughter Ona is an anthropologist. She has the sole first-person POV in the story as she records interviews with all her living family members in the countdown to the wake—the wake which becomes the final push she needs to turn her attention to recording and researching her own lineage, heritage, and family history from the rural backwaters of the Dominican Republic to the capital Santo Domingo, to modern-day New York City. The other POVs are third-person and feature different women across the generations of the Dominican-American Marte family. This fragmented, non-linear, multi-POV, multi-generational, women-centric, magic-realism-infused family saga is a most promising debut by award-winning YA author and slam poet, Elizabeth Acevedo.
Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram
Darius, named after Darius the Great (Darioush in its original Persian form), and Laleh are fractional Persians with an Iranian mother and an American father. When their maternal grandfather is diagnosed with an untreatable brain tumour, the Kellners travel to Yazd, their mother’s hometown. From seeing his Babou and Mamou on Skype to finally meeting them in person, to making his first real friend in their neighbour Sorabh, to beginning to reconcile his fractured identity, his self-worth, and his feeling of being unwanted and a disappointment, there is a lot to unpack here even without the addition of family dynamics, of which there are plenty. Darius also has depression, and this is a very realistic portrait of living with it and its effects on the people closest to the sufferers. But, refreshingly (though those stories are as important), it isn’t the aim of the narrative journey. This wasn’t a book about depression or a character learning to live with it, but a beautiful slice-of-life story about a teenage boy who just happens to suffer from it.
The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa
The Professor has only 80 minutes of short-term memory until it resets to make room for the next batch. For him, life stopped in 1975, before the car accident that caused permanent brain damage. Any sense of time since is imaginary and abstract, unlike the numbers that help keep order in his world. Numbers are truth. This was true before the accident and remains even more so now when he has to walk around with notes clipped to his coat reminding him of important information even if he has no memory of them. Then, one day, he gets a new housekeeper. She has a young son, who he calls Root because the flat top of his head resembles a square root sign. For the Professor, every day is the first time he meets them, but they forge a connection that goes beyond time and memory. The old man introduces them to the simplicity and elegance to be found even in the most complex of equations. How numbers reassuringly never change, even after giving up their secrets. For the housekeeper, a single mother who’s feeling a little lost herself, a peek at the invisible world propping up the visible one brings comfort, the promise of inexplicable peace. This is a wonderfully evocative tale of unexpected friendship and the impact of the rare, fleeting moments that connect us to others and the universe and change our lives.
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About the Author:
Anushree Nande is a Mumbai-born writer, editor, and publishing professional. Her publications include fairytale-inspired flash fiction, Ruby Whispers (October 2023), travel CNF collection Pomegranate Summer (November 2022), literary fiction novelette Summer Melody (Alien Buddha Press, November 2021), and digital-only microfiction collection 55 Words (Underground Voices, October 2015). You can find her other fiction, CNF and essays, football writing, and poetry in various magazines and journals, in print and online. You can find her at Instagram | Twitter