While most well-written books receive critical acclaim, some continue to thrive in oblivion. Here’s a list of 12 underrated books that can change your perspective on life, society and relationships:
1. The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa
“He preferred smart questions to smart answers.”
The Housekeeper and the Professor revolves around a math professor who has lived with only eighty minutes of short memory since a traumatic head injury, and a young housekeeper hired to take care of him. Told in a beautifully gentle and moving narrative, the book throws light upon the value of relationships and love. It propels us to scratch beneath the surface of several emotional ambiguities to resolve individual complexities and differences. If there’s one book that will teach you how to re-fall in love with mathematics and its power to bring people together, it has to be this one.
2. The Absolutist by John Boyne
“One single syllable of intimacy and the world is put to rights.”
A young man named Tristan Sandler takes a train from London to Norwich to deliver a package of letters to the sister of Will Bancroft, the man he fought alongside during the Great War. However, the letters aren’t the real reason for his visit. He can no longer keep a secret and must unburden himself of it. A historical fiction different from all others in its genre, The Absolutist is a poignant, heartbreaking, distinctive account of a man’s journey of self-discovery and pain.
3. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
“But when the strong were too weak to hurt the weak, the weak had to be strong enough to leave.”
Irrespective of its several philosophical ramblings, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is one of the best narratives you’ll ever come across. It is the story of a young woman in love with a man torn between his love for her, his incorrigible womanizing; one of his mistresses, and his humbly faithful lover. It juxtaposes various lives, giving us, in turn, an insight into how a world in which everything occurs at once loses its substance, “weight”. With exploring various themes – right from politics to eternal recurrence, Kundera taps into a part of ourselves to whose existence we were oblivious, making us rethink aspects of our lives we always felt we knew, but never enough.
4. Ask The Passengers by A.S. King
“She smiled at me, and I never forgot it. Or more accurately, I always remembered it.”
Ask the Passengers is a coming of age story of Astrid Jones, a young girl who speaks to passengers in airplanes that fly overhead. She doesn’t know them, but they’re the only people who won’t judge her when she asks them her most personal questions. But little does Astrid know just how much even the tiniest connection will affect these strangers’ lives–and her own–for the better. Ask The Passengers is a heart-warming tale told unpretentiously. Honest characterization, good narration and a stunning use of magical realism make the book a winning read.
5. The Reef by Edith Wharton
“There was such love as she had dreamed, and she meant to go on believing in it and cherishing the thought that she was worthy of it.”
The Reef is a subtle, beautiful and passionate story of four romantically intertwined Americans living in Paris. It is an exploration of some of the most complex issues a perceptive, elegant and evocative manner. Edith Wharton’s insightful 1912 classic was a daring challenge to the social and sexual conventions of the time, and is still provocative today.
6. In The Convent of Little Flowers by Indu Sundaresan
“And yet this Sister Mary Theresa, Mother Superior, talks of it and brings the sun-drenched mud courtyard in the shadow of the Gemini Bridge.
Bestselling author Indu Sundaresan compiles a stunning collection of stories that illuminate the lives of Indians at home and abroad today, where modernity offers them opportunities that their grandmothers only dreamed of, while others experience just as much oppression as ever. Sundaresan brings together stories that both embrace and reject modern values with great authenticity. It’s a highly compelling, vivid and insightful read.
7. The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
“The truth is a thing I invented so I could live.”
This story is about an eighty-year-old Jewish-Polish immigrant and retired locksmith, Leo Gursky; a fourteen-year-old girl, Alma Singer, who is trying to find a way to keep her mother happy, and Zvi Litvinoff, the author of an abstruse book called The History of Love. What they each have to do with one another isn’t at first clear, but becomes all too apparent as you read on. It’s a story of love and friendship, memory and ageing, survival and life. Written sensitively, humorously and beautifully, this book has the ability to transport the readers into a world that is as real as it gets.
8. Kartography by Kamila Shamsie
“For a second, I was almost jealous of the clouds. Why was he looking to them for an escape when I was right here beside him?”
Following the journeys of Raheen, and her best friend Karim through the different stages of their lives, Kartography is a dazzling, bold and honest story of family secrets, mystery, and love.
9. Cosmos by Wiltold Gombrowicz
“Not surprisingly, because too much attention to one object leads to distraction, this one object conceals everything else, and when we focus on one point on the map we know that all other points are eluding us.”
Revolving around two young men who intend to spend their vacation relaxing, this book explores their journey when they become embroiled first in a macabre event on the way to finding a secluded family-run pension, then in the peculiar activities and psychological travails of the family running it. Polish author Wiltold Gombrowicz explores the notions of order in a seemingly random, chaotic world in his 1967 novel, which, as translator Danuta Borchardt asserts in her introduction, was ‘second in importance only to the Nobel Prize’. This psychological novel bombards, and occasionally exhausts the reader with Gombrowicz’s characteristic subtly and mastery of paranoid over-analysis. While its intrinsic detailing of language can be off putting at first, it definitely does astound as you read further.
10. Silk by Alessandro Baricco
“Reasons get forgotten.”
It is the 1860s; Japan is closed to foreigners and this has to be a clandestine operation. Henry Joncour is a silkworm trader, and leaves his doting wife and comfortable home to travel to Japan. While on his undercover negotiations, Joncour’s attention is arrested by the man’s concubine, a young girl. Even though the Frenchman and the girl are not able to exchange so much as a word, love blossoms between them through a series of recondite messages. Silk is a hauntingly beautiful novella of a love story that will leave you thinking about it long after you’ve finished reading it.
11. Stork Mountain by Miroslav Penkov
“But asking him required I speak the language I hadn’t used in so many years, and this scared me far more than a sandstorm.”
Stork Mountain tells the story of a young Bulgarian immigrant who, in an attempt to escape his mediocre life in America, returns to the country of his birth, and his journey thereon. It is an enormously charming, subtle, incredibly great debut novel from an internationally celebrated writer, a novel that will undoubtedly find a home in many readers’ hearts.
12. The Shell Collector by Anthony Doerr
“He hadn’t seen that what he had in common with the world — with the trunks of trees and the marching columns of ants and green shoots corkscrewing up from the mud — was life: the first light that sent every living thing paddling forth into the world every day.”
The Shell Collector is the debut short story collection of the critically acclaimed author Anthony Doerr. It’s an exquisite collection of long short stories that travel the expanse of different worlds, people, and their metamorphoses. They all share a common thread – which is the beauty of nature, and its ability to heal. This is the kind of book you may not love immediately, but will certainly grow to love over a period of time.
Source (partial): Goodreads.
Trivarna Hariharan is an editorial intern at Open Road Review.