The Most Underrated Books Of The 20th Century | Backlist Bananas

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Backlist Bananas is a series of posts dedicated to classics and the backlist in general. This is just the first one of many!

If you look up lists like ‘books you have to read before you die’ and ‘best books of all time’, they literally all have the same titles on them, and they are pretty much all by straight, white men, plus some Jane Austen. Boring. While fighting through plenty of books that just weren’t that impressive in my English Literature degree, I slowly compiled a list of what I believe to be the best books of the 20th Century – except they’re not your usual canon. If you disagree with me and actually love all the books you can usually find on these lists, good for you! But maybe you’ll find something new to read here nonetheless.

I am obviously not an authority on 20th-Century literature, and anyone who tells you that they are is probably just a snob. These are simply my personal favourites, and I am aware that I haven’t read 20th-Century literature from every part of the world. If there are great, diverse, underrated books that you think I missed out on, please leave a comment below!

Book covers: The Garden Party and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield, Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner, and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

The Garden Party and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield (1922)

A short story collection that feels magical without actually resorting to any magical elements, The Garden Party and Other Stories is memorable because of how masterfully Mansfield builds her characters and settings in just a few pages. Each story begins in what seems like a perfectly mundane situation, and ends in unsettling scenarios that are left open-ended and with a vague sense of unease. She sets many of her stories in seaside landscapes, the ocean mirroring the simultaneous turbulence and calm of her stories. I personally love a good ocean story, and Mansfield’s gentle way of introducing darkness into middle-class society is definitely worth a read.

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner (1926)

One of the more obscure and lesser known queer classics, Lolly Willowes combines many of my favourite things: small-town women rebelling against their ‘duty’ to get married and have children, witches having fun and minding their own business, and badly hidden lesbian subtext. Lolly Willowes is the name the protagonist chooses for herself when she decides to live alone and become a witch, and somehow (no spoilers) subsequently ends up in the woods dancing with another woman. This is a scene in which the lesbian subtext is barely subtext at all, the protagonist gushing about how amazing dancing with women is, while she was disgusted spending any time with men beforehand. Of course, the fact that the author lived with her female partner for most of her life aids my interpretation, and I refuse to see this as anything but a queer classic. Cats and witchy familiars play a big role in this novel as well, something that will surely satisfy fans of the occult. If you’ve been disappointed by the uptight language and boring upper-class aspirations that are common in British classics, this funny, rebellious, and adorable book is what you need.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (1958)

Oh, Achebe, how much I love you. Things Fall Apart, the first in a series of novels by the author, follows Okonkwo, a hyper-masculine man whose life is turned upside down when colonialists arrive and take over his village in Nigeria. Achebe here explores emasculation and its relation to colonialism, as well as the introduction of Christianity to his country. In the process, he crafts a character who, despite his flaws and often frustrating behaviour, quickly grows on you and becomes a memorable favourite. I am terrible with remembering characters, and yet I have never forgotten about Okonkwo. This is a short read that can be finished in an afternoon, but that will enrich your life for so much longer.

Book covers: Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown, Agua Viva by Clarice Lispector, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown (1973)

Rubyfruit Jungle is not just a favourite of the 20th Century, but a favourite out of all books ever published. It tells the story of Molly, a rebellious, wild girl who grows up poor in the south of the United States, and quickly realises she’s gay. This is the opposite of a sad, angsty coming-out story, however, and instead shows Molly happily sleeping with girls and doing basically whatever the hell she wants. When her hometown becomes too small for her big dreams, she moves to New York to become a filmmaker, and while she faces many obstacles, she is never deterred, and pursues her career with little care for what anyone thinks. She’s definitely reckless and at times brusque, a bit of a Shane McCutcheon of the 70s, and I absolutely love how unapologetic she is about her identity. She doesn’t try to prove or define herself, but just lives her life as she wants to. Basically, she’s goals, and if you love rebellious queer narratives, you need to read this book.

Água Viva by Clarice Lispector (1973)

The only translated book on this list, Água Viva is truly unique in every way. It’s a sort of series of meditations on life and identity, always returning to the question of what it means to live in the here and now. But it’s not as cheesy as it sounds, and it lacks any of the inspirational language one would expect from a book like that. The author and translator’s choice of words create something beautiful and highly quotable; the Portuguese title translates to both ‘living water’ and ‘jellyfish’, which explains the decision to leave it in its original language. The text does indeed read like living water, passages flowing into each other and escaping your hands as you try to grasp and define them, but it is also a kind of jellyfish, hypnotising in its movement and somehow containing so much while being void of any concrete substance. The middle portion of the text is a bit messier, and I often disagreed with the author’s sentiments, but towards the end she returns to the mesmerising beauty that blew me away at the beginning of the book. It’s hard to describe and impossible to do justice in a review – just do yourself a favour and read it.

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson (1985)

This list couldn’t be complete without a memoir. It’s a semi-fictional one, but there is truth in the protagonist’s experiences. Jeanette, the ‘fictional’ main character, grows up in a highly Catholic family, the church being the centre of her universe. The realisation that she’s gay is gradual, and unaccompanied by any knowledge of terms or rules, making it an incredibly angsty read. You know, as a reader, that she’s going to be discovered eventually, and that her ignorance of the ‘sin’ she’s committing will get her in trouble. Jeanette Winterson’s writing is known to be stunning, and she tells her modified life story with skill, drawing you in. If you would rather read her truthful memoir and bypass the fiction, she chronicles her real story in Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, published in 2011, and a book I have yet to read.

Book covers: Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, and Luck in the Shadows by Lynn Flewelling

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga (1988)

In Nervous Conditions, Tsitsi Dangarembga tells the story of Tambu, a young girl from Zimbabwe (at the time Rhodesia), who moves into her uncle Babamukuru’s house to go to school and get what she considers a good education. Her uncle went to university in the UK and holds an important job, and the cousins she now lives with partially grew up in the west. This makes for a really interesting dynamic, and Dangarembga paints a picture of hybridity with this family that feels out of place in either country. Babamukuru struggles with negotiating his own privilege, on one hand wealthy and considered ‘superior’ in his community due to his western education and respectable job, on the other hand still considered inferior by his boss and co-workers, as well as the other white people he interacts with. His daughter, Nyasha, is rebellious and doesn’t acknowledge his authority, making him feel even more emasculated and powerless, which leads to his violent behaviour throughout the book. While Nyasha lashes out in response to the world around her, Tambu chooses to pick her battles, and focuses on her studies, ignoring the injustices around her in order to become successful and attain the privilege she sees in her uncle. This clash of approaches is the central tension of the book, and makes for a variety of conflicts between Nyasha, Babamukuru, and Tambu. It’s a fast-paced, intense, and often heartbreaking novel that manages to successfully tackle a lot of issues without compromising the characters or the plot. The first book to be published in English by a black woman from Zimbabwe, this is not one to miss.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt (1992)

If you’ve known me for a while, you will know just how much I love Donna Tartt’s writing. It’s considered pretentious by a lot of people, but I found both The Secret History and The Goldfinch incredibly moving, intelligent, and impossible to put down. They are generally slow books, with a lot of subtle plotting and many character interactions that seem to lead nowhere. However, her writing styles draws you in and doesn’t let you go until you breathlessly close the book, unsure of what just happened. The Secret History, Donna Tartt’s incredible debut novel, follows a young man as he moves to an elite university in Vermont and falls in with a group of classics students who take mythology a bit too seriously. This beast of a novel kicks off with a murder and then backtracks to the beginning of the school year, slowly leading up to the fateful day. The character building is wonderfully complex, and the toxic and terrible relationships between the students slowly unfold with all their delicious mysteries. The ending is painful and beautiful, and left me crying and a little broken. If you don’t mind a bit of pretentiousness and upper-class nonsense, and love flawed characters who do terrible things in a wintery atmosphere, this is a book you won’t regret committing to.

Luck in the Shadows (Nightrunner #1) by Lynn Flewelling (1996)

The final book I feel the need to mention is Luck in the Shadows, the first one in Lynn Flewelling’s queer epic fantasy series. It’s not particularly beautifully written, nor does it attempt to change the fabric of society, but I believe it deserves a place on this list for being one of the first classical fantasy texts to have queer characters at its centre. Not only that, but a healthy relationship between two complex and interesting people, who are way more than just their sexuality, and whose relationship develops slowly and realistically. They even get a happy ending! This series has some problems, and it is by no means perfect, but it stole my heart with its exciting plot, ridiculous necromancy, and wonderful relationships. The secondary characters throughout the series are interesting and fleshed out as well, often getting their own point of view and becoming fan favourites. If you like fantasy and m/m romance, and don’t mind a bit of nonsense, this is pretty high on my recommendations list! I also recommended this series as part of the 10 best books I read in 2019.

What are your favourite unconventional, underrated, or diverse classics? If you have recommendations for books from parts of the world that I haven’t featured, I would be especially glad to hear them. You can leave them in the comments below – or get in touch with me on Goodreads or Instagram.

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