7 Short Novels About Characters Who Make Transgressive Choices

Kiare Ladner, author of Nightshift, recommends books about living outside the mainstream

Photo by Library of Congress on Unsplash

What is it like to break with convention? To go against expectations? To slip out of the mainstream?

In my 20s what I wanted most was to write. What I needed most was time. So I took a nightshift job summarizing crime articles. Though I relished escape from the nine-to-five drudge, the inverted perspective of being nocturnal, and the nonconformist people I met, my body clock never adjusted. Constantly sleep deprived, my writing stalled. 

Years on, I used this setting for my debut novel, Nightshift. Meggie, the protagonist, gives up a “normal” daytime existence for a different reason. She meets Sabine and recognizes in her the person she wants to be. As Meggie’s obsessive attraction grows, she follows Sabine into the liminal world of London’s night workers…

Writing the book, I was interested how far from societal expectations someone will go to explore who they are. Meggie questions even basic assumptions, asking, “Why was it such a great thing to respect yourself? If you let go of vapid ideas like that, of that kind of preciousness, you could explore so much else. If you swept your precious self out of the way a bit.”

Unsurprisingly, as a reader, I am drawn to outsiders who make choices that swim against the tide of dominant narratives. Here are a few of my favorites, new and old, in which I find inspiration, comfort and hope:

Assembly by Natasha Brown

A Black British woman has a high-powered finance job. But she is exhausted by the obligation to ascend, and the impossibility of escaping white narratives. Outwardly, she appears to fit in and achieve worldly success, while inwardly she finds relief in contemplating a choice that may cost her life. Brown’s incisive debut shows the limits of words and story when even they are tainted by racial injustice. 

These words, symbols arranged on the page (itself a pure, unblemished vehicle for objective elucidation of thought), these basic units of civilization – how could they harbour ill intent?

Cleanness by Garth Greenwell

The narrator of Greenwell’s debut What Belongs to You holds together the linked stories of this novel, which is also set in Sofia, Bulgaria. We follow his love affair with R., his interactions with his students, his BDSM sexual encounters and his social/political involvements. The book is infused with sexual desire, which is explicitly, viscerally, and tenderly described. The narrator makes boldly expressive choices that don’t spare him or leave any place to hide. 

“You can call out for anything you desire, however aberrant or unlikely, and nearly always there comes an answer, it’s a large world, we’re never as solitary as we think, as unique or unprecedented, what we feel has always already been felt, again and again, without beginning or end.”

The Bitch by Pilar Quintana, translated by Lisa Dillman

Quintana’s intense allegory is set on Colombia’s Pacific coast where daily life is harsh and merciless. Damaris, childless at an age “when women dry up” as her uncle puts it, lives in a shack surrounded by jungle with her husband, Rogelio and his three dogs. One day Damaris brings home a puppy that she gives the name intended for her daughter. She cares lovingly for the pup, but it has a will of its own. As its disregard for her increases, infringing on her most difficult memories, Damaris makes choices that diverge from common expectations for pet or maternal narratives. 

“She wanted to run away, get lost, say nothing to anyone, be swallowed up by the jungle. She started to run, tripped and fell, got up and ran again.”

Vacuum in the Dark by Jen Beagin

Mona is a cleaner with a secret photographic project that involves dressing up in her clients’ clothes. Following her dead junkie boyfriend brought her to Taos, New Mexico, where she gets involved with the married Dark, which brings its own set of problems. She has imaginary conversations with Bob (God) or more productively Terry (her fantasy version of the real-life talk show host on NPR). Her way of dealing with past trauma is raw, idiosyncratic, and darkly humorous: an anti-heroine who isn’t fazed by taboos and embraces transgression of many kinds.

“In some ways, they reminded her of John and Yoko, but, as they were both terrible musicians, she called them Yoko and Yoko.”

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors, translated by Misha Hoekstra

Sonja is over 40, single, and living in Copenhagen. Unsuccessfully, she is trying to learn how to drive, keep her positional vertigo under control, and reconnect with her sister. In her mind, she constantly escapes back to the vast, rural landscapes of her childhood. Though lonely, she finds solace in being alone. Quietly she begins to defy expectations, slipping out of confined social situations to try to find her own way, forward or back… 

“She’s grown up and playing the part, but she’s also a child who doesn’t want to learn her lesson, who won’t adapt, won’t be like the others and think what the others think, whatever that might be.”

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori

Keiko Furukura, with her blunt, literal, and unique outlook, has never fitted in. Her parents gave her a loving childhood, and she accepted her aloneness without drama or self-pity. Yet after 18 happy years of being single and stacking shelves in a convenience store, she caves in to societal pressures. She hooks up with loner Shihara. Though neither is interested in sexual intimacy, they pretend to be a couple. But when Keiko quits the store to try for a more ambitious job, has she taken her experiment in conformity a step too far?

“She’s far happier thinking her sister is normal, even if she has a lot of problems, than she is having an abnormal sister for whom everything is fine.” 

Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal, translated by Michael Henry Heim

Haňťa has been compacting books for 35 years under the communist regime in Prague. But he has also been saving those he can from destruction and hoarding them in his home. Every inch of his apartment is so piled with books that they threaten “to fall and kill or at least maim” him. Yet in a society increasingly given over to bland efficiency and the forces of progress, Haňťa finds solace in retreating further into the world of memory, literature, and dreams. This is a novel into which I myself retreat, again and again.  

“I am a jug filled with water both magic and plain; I have only to lean over and a stream of beautiful thoughts flows out of me. My education has been so unwitting I can’t quite tell which of my thoughts come from me and which from books, but that’s how I’ve stayed attuned to myself and the world around me for the past thirty-five years. Because when I read, I don’t really read; I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop, or I sip it like a liqueur until the thought dissolves in me like alcohol, infusing brain and heart and coursing on through the veins to the root of each blood vessel.”

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