7 Novels About People Feeling Out of Place

Jeff Boyd, author of "The Weight," recommends books about finding belonging in an environment of otherness

A person wearing vans standing on top of post-rain oil sheen.
Photo by Jesse Bowser on Unsplash

One of the hardest things about feeling out of place is the loneliness. Living somewhere where the bulk of your software isn’t compatible with the system everyone else is running on. The people around you got their own problems, of course, but for them, it’s not a matter of the system not accepting who they are at a fundamental level.

A person happily alone is not out of place. An out-of-place person yearns for real love. Feeling out of place is about social-emotional efforts that yield slim to no returns. Feeling out of place is about fatigue. It’s about the fact that anyone who looks at them can see that something about them is off—at least that’s how the out-of-place person feels about it—and the ways in which people poke and prod or even ignore them only proves their assumptions.

So why go through with living in a mess like that? Why not go someplace where people can accept you for who you are? Well, in the case of the main character, Julian, in my debut novel The Weight, he’s never really felt like he belonged anywhere to begin with. His new life in Portland, Oregon feels like it might be his best shot at getting whole. Only trouble is, none of his friends look like him or think like him or come from where he came from. So how does he deal? How does he resolve his feeling out of place with the strong desire to belong where he stands in a way that feels true to his head, heart, and soul? The novels below provide a possible answer to those questions of finding belonging in an environment of otherness.

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

Set in 1985, Bill Furlong is a coal merchant in a small town in Ireland. He’s a kind, hardworking family man, beloved and respected by those in his community. His life isn’t easy though, besides the hard work of making sure everyone in the town stays warm through the winter—all the deliveries, and all the long hours—he was a child born out of wedlock in a place and time where that really matters. Fortunately, he and his mother were taken in by a kind woman with enough money not to care about society’s moors. But being raised the way he was, as an outsider, he’s got a soft spot for the downtrodden. So, in the last month of the year, with Christmas quickly approaching, when he realizes that the local parish’s Good Shepherd Convent is separating young mothers from their children and making them do the town’s laundry, he’s got a big problem with that, trouble is, he seems to be the only person in town who does. Keegan’s writing is beautiful and precise and forces the reader to ask deep questions as they follow the actions and frustrations of the compassionate and out-of-place Bill Furlong.

The Sorrows of Others by Ada Zhang

Every character we follow in Ada Zhang’s incredible debut collection is out of place for one reason or another. For one it’s a matter of being in a new country. For another it’s a matter of needing to save money and therefore being a young tenant in the home of an elderly woman. Sometimes the divide is a matter of generational differences. Sometimes the divide is a matter of culture, confusion, and expectations unmet. But all the characters in these stories want to understand and to be understood. Zhang’s characters, old and young, are deep and full of desire.

They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib

When Abdurraqib writes about being the only Black guy at a concert venue except for the people working there, I know exactly what he’s talking about. And through his poetic ruminations on that out-of-placeness and the way in which he ties in American culture, I feel less alone. In 2016 I lived in Chicago and witnessed firsthand the height of Chance the Rapper and what he meant to the city. How he lifted everyone up in that time of great despair. Hanif saw it too. He speaks for himself; and he speaks for so many of us. I can’t believe he would admit to being such a Fall Out Boy fan, but who am I kidding, I’ve seen them in concert several times. And when he talks about what the band meant to him and a friend he lost, I dare you not to shed a tear. 

No One Left to Come Looking for You by Sam Lipsyte

As a budding punk rock bassist, Jack Shit is reminded on multiple occasions that he is an outsider, a wannabe; that New York was not made for him. But Jack doesn’t want to go back home to the suburbs, he wants to be in on the action. He wants his band back together, but that’s not possible because his bass guitar and lead singer have both gone missing. And without those two things, who is Jack Shit, anyway? No One Left to Come Looking for You is a page turning mystery set in the lively music scene of early 1990s Manhattan.

The Final Revival of Opal and Nev by Dawnie Walton

It’s hard to keep a band together in the best of circumstances. In The Final Revival of Opal and Nev, Dawnie Walton cleverly resurrects a fictional duo from the 1970s and makes us root for them as if they were real. Opal is a Black woman with alopecia from Detroit who can sing with a mesmerizing force. Nev is a redheaded man from England. Together they made powerful and unforgettable music. But on one fateful night, Opal and Nev are forced to take sides, and the decisions made break up the band and cause irreparable harm. 40 years later are they ready for a reunion? Through a series of fictional interviews and journalistic writing, we dive into their world as it is and as it was and come to understand that nothing is as simple as it looks on the surface. In this novel, Walton plays with form and storytelling in a way that is stunning and wholly unique. 

Allow Me to Retort: A Black Guy’s Guide to the Constitution by Elie Mystal

It’s strange to feel out of place in a country you helped build with a culture so intrinsically influenced by your people, and sadly that is the case for so many of us. Even more audacious is how the people in power continue to bend the law to serve their dominance and continue mass oppression all in the name of the irrefutable rights they claim the Constitution has granted them. In Allow Me to Retort, Mystal makes a clear argument about the rights we’re supposed to have and the way that Republicans distort them. He lays out his vision for a greater America and what we as citizens can do to create a more just country and Constitution. This book is important, informative, maddening, easy to digest, and entertaining. What more could one ask for?

The Street by Ann Petry

Lutie Johnson is out of place in 1940s Harlem. But she moved into a fourth-floor walkup with her young son, Bub, because the price was right, and she’d like for her and her son to have more safety and stability than they’d had in the past. Poverty doesn’t care about her dreams though, and neither does anyone else, not for free anyway. Everything she needs and wants for her son comes at a steep price. Poverty is the enemy, but so is the street itself. So what can Lutie do but fight? Nothing. In this novel we witness her valiant effort, and we root for her and little Bub, all while knowing how hard it is to escape the trouble of being poor and Black in America, both then, and now. This novel is a revelation. Ann Petry was the first Black woman author to sell over a million copies of a novel. She puts you right in Lutie’s shoes and doesn’t let you look away.

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