"What's The Story?
A Weekly Roundup of Fiction Recommendations
By Gwen Cooper
“Of Riots and Revolutions” Edition
We here at The Insider pride ourselves on being zeitgeist-y, so this week “What’s the Story?” looks at a very (very!) small sampling of novels that take riots, uprisings, and revolts as at least a portion of their plot and/or backdrop. This list is by no means exhaustive and simply represents a few of the novels on this theme that I’ve enjoyed over the years, presented in chronological order.
A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens – In some ways, Tale is the least Dickenesque novel in the Dickens oeuvre. It’s comparatively slim, for one thing, at a mere 340ish pages, and it takes Dickens’s roving authorial eye from England—to which he was otherwise as devoted in his work as Woody Allen once was to Manhattan—to France for roughly half the book’s action. And it’s a work of historical fiction, to boot. (Most, although not all, of Dickens’s novels were set in his own present day.) Nevertheless, it remains his bestselling novel, and one of the bestselling novels of all times. Tale does an excellent job of both making the causes of the French revolution explicable—the grinding poverty, the ruthless exploitation of the poor by the wealthy—while also making it clear that the Reign of Terror was…well…pretty terrifying. It’s also a grandly sweeping novel of love, honor, and redemption, and it’s pretty much a guarantee that you’ll be openly sobbing by the time you get to that famous ending: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
Les Misérables, Victor Hugo – Once again we visit revolutionary France, this time against the backdrop of the 1848 Paris Insurrection (also known as the February Revolution). Les Mis is a great whopping doorstop of a novel—one of the longest ever written, in point of fact (my Penguin Classics edition weighs in at more than 1,300 pages)—but still every bit as captivating as one would expect from the beloved musical adaptation, and well worth every second of the time it will take you to read it. Catch up once again with Cosette, Marius, Eponine, the doomed Fantine, the villainous Thénardiers, the dogged Javert, and the eminently humane Jean Valjean—plus hundreds of pages of digressions on politics, justice, the monarchy, moral philosophy, history, human nature, and more. Trust me, it reads a lot better than it sounds.
Futility, William Gerhardie – Gerhardie, a Russian-born Brit, gets somewhat lost in the shuffle among his more well-known contemporaries (Waugh, Wharton, Mansfield, et cetera), who nevertheless admired him greatly. And Futility, his first great comic novel (actually his first novel, period) serves as an excellent introduction to his work. Its protagonist and narrator is Andre Andreich—also a young Russian-born Brit—who becomes an intimate in the household of one Nikolai Vasilievich Bursanov and his Chekhovian three daughters: Sonia, Nina, and Vera. Nikolai’s sprawling family—and list of financial dependents—includes not only his daughters (now in their late teens/early twenties), but also the estranged wife who left him years ago for a dentist yet refuses to divorce him; the German-born retired actress Fanny Ivanova who’s been living with him and helping to raise his daughters ever since; and the seventeen-year-old Zina who’s recently caught his eye—plus her sprawling clan of parents, siblings, and cousins holding their hands out to the perpetually cash-strapped Nikolai, who’s waiting for some gold mines in Siberia to finally pay off. And all this is before the Russian Revolution arrives to make the family’s life even more complicated. Through it all, our narrator pursues Nina, who is also being pursued by an American naval officer. That all this—and more!—is packed into a mere 220ish-page novel is further testament to Gerhardie’s underappreciated gifts.
Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison – One of the greatest novels of all times, and certainly one of the greatest protest novels ever committed to paper. It’s also gorgeously written and a compulsive read, which is all just icing on the cake. I won’t take up too much space with this one, as so much has been written about it by others who’ve done a far better job than I could ever do. Suffice it to say that the unnamed black narrator’s journey from the Jim Crow South to riotous Harlem to self-imposed exile—and the rogue’s gallery of segregationists, lackeys, rabble rousers, revolutionaries, and limousine liberals (not to mention the occasional horny housewife) he encounters along the way—feels as urgent and timely now as it did in 1952, when the book was first released. This was a novel that completely blew my mind when I first read it back in college and, revisiting it a year or two ago, I found its effects no less incendiary.
Bodily Harm, Margaret Atwood – This is the novel that immediately preceded The Handmaid’s Tale, which may be why it’s one of Atwood’s lesser-discussed novels today. Nevertheless, it’s a canny examination of the overlaps between economic exploitation, racial exploitation, and gender exploitation—all wrapped up in a slender book that’s both an exquisitely observed character study and a taut, propulsive thriller. Travel reporter Rennie Wilford is recovering from breast cancer, a mastectomy, and the recent demise of a long-term romantic relationship when she’s assigned to cover the fictional Caribbean island of St. Antoine—where amenities for well-heeled tourists are anemic as compared to other “luxury” island retreats, but still worlds better than the miserable conditions locals are forced to live under. Rennie ends up being drawn further into island politics than she’d like by her fling with a local bootlegger named Paul—and further still when the island finally erupts into violence and revolution.
The Meursault Investigation, Kamel Daoud – Hailed as an instant classic upon its 2013 publication, Meursault is both companion and retort to Albert Camus’ 1942 existentialist novel, The Stranger. Narrated by Harun (Aaron), younger brother of the Arab man killed by Meursault in the original novel—nameless in Sartre’s book, but here named Musa (Moses)—Daoud’s novel is a searing portrayal of the long-term effects on a family when one of their number becomes famous for having been murdered senselessly in an act of racist violence. Jumping back and forth in time (and beginning with the perhaps inevitable first line: “Mama’s still alive today.”), Meursault also covers the chaotic and bloody 1954 – 1962 Algerian War—which began as street-level protests and ultimately concluded with Algeria’s independence from France.
Gwen Cooper is the New York Times bestselling author of Homer's Odyssey and My Life in a Cat House, among numerous other titles. Her latest book, The Book of Pawsome: Head Bonks, Raspy Tongues, and 101 Reasons Why Cats Make Us So, So Happy, is now available for purchase on Amazon.com. Gwen will donate 50% of the first week's proceeds to Meals on Wheels.