6 Novels In Which Nothing is As It Seems (And We Love It)

Some stories are straightforward, telling us everything just as it is. Some employ a few twists that change the plot’s internal logic, giving the reader an excitingly bumpy ride. Then there are the six novels below, which think nothing of messing with your mind as enthusiastically as possible. The worst of it is, these novels make you think you know what’s going on, only to completely twist you up when you’re done reading. And yet, after we’ve turned the last page, we just want to go back and read them again, just to see what we missed the first time around. That’s kind of genius.

Dead Letters, by Caite Dolan-Leach
In Dolan-Leach’s debut novel, Ava Antipova returns home to upstate New York when her twin sister, Zelda, dies in a barn fire. Ava arrives suspicious; the dramatic death is precisely what Zelda would have chosen for her demise. As Ava navigates her unhappy, alcoholic family and an old school flame, she discovers Zelda’s burner phone—and begins to receive emails and texts from her sister. What follows is a scavenger hunt and puzzle as Ava chases down clues, which is convenient considering her field of study involves literary mysteries. As Ava creeps towards the solution, there are false starts and red herrings, but the picture that slowly coalesces is affecting and forces the reader to reevaluate the assumptions they began with.

We Were Liars, by E. Lockhart
This YA novel is a corker of a bookish puzzle that will blow minds of all ages. Cadence Eastman spends her childhood summers on a small island owned by her incredibly wealthy grandfather. Her first 14 summers there are idyllic, spent romping with the “Liars,” Cadence’s cousins and and a beloved family friend. The fifteenth summer, however, is different: Cadence wakes up after a mysterious accident, suffering from a host of mental problems, including amnesia. She spends a summer away from the island, then returns, only to find everything has changed. As Cadence delves into the mystery of what happened to her, the reader will be fooled right up until the last moment—and then will feverishly flip back to the front to see how they could possibly have missed the clues along the way.

Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters
Sarah Waters’ tale of Dickensian skulduggery is so twisty and deceptive there will be at least three moments when any reader will drop the book in surprise and amazement. The story begins with Sue, trained by a Fagin-like mentor named Mrs. Sucksby, accompanying a master thief and con artist known as the Gentleman in the guise of a lady’s maid as he seduces a wealthy heiress with an eye towards having the poor woman committed to an asylum so he can claim her fortune. Sue falls in love with the unfortunate victim, Maud, but reluctantly goes through with the scheme. And that is basically the last straight line the story will offer you—the chapters that follow are just one exercise in pulling blinders away from your eyes after another, until the true trajectory of the story is finally revealed.

The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James
More than a century after its initial publication, no one totally agrees on what actually happens in this brilliant short novel. A young governess is hired to care for two children on an isolated estate, ordered by their uncle not to bother him in any way. She comes to have great affection for the children, especially young Miles, who has been mysteriously expelled from his boarding school. She begins to see two mysterious figures, a man and a woman, and learns that her predecessor and another employee were lovers and are both now dead; she becomes disturbed because no one else seems to notice the pair. Here we are in 2017 and no one is entirely certain whether this is a ghost story, the story of a woman going insane—or both.

The Life of Pi, by Yann Martel
Martel’s infamous book still divides readers. Piscine, known as Pi, is part of a family who sells their zoo in India in order to move to America. When he survives a shipwreck, he finds himself on a small raft with several animals, including a Bengal tiger. The animals attack each other until the tiger is the only one left. Over the course of more than 200 days, Pi trains the tiger and comes to view him as his companion, until they wash up on shore and the tiger abandons him, leaving him heartbroken. The final section of the book offers a different account of what happened to Pi—a much more horrifying and depressing version, and Pi famously asks the authorities interviewing him to choose which version they prefer.

The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling
This science fiction novel offers an alternative history in which Charles Babbage perfected his mechanical computer (which almost existed in reality) in the early 19th century, sparking a much earlier industrial revolution and altering the course of history. The story is fascinating, but many folks find the style and format off-putting. To say the final chapter of the book forces you to look back on everything that came before is an understatement: the final chapter of the book doesn’t change the events described, but absolutely changes how the reader views those events and their telling.

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