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Finding your story: Ten remarkable novels about identity

These ten remarkable novels about identity have been selected for the 100 Novels That Shaped Our World. They have already sparked passionate discussion about the qualities of books that help us to find ourselves. Explore the ten, then pick one up at a library and join the conversation.

The panel have chosen these novels on the theme of Identity: Beloved by Toni Morrison; Days Without End by Sebastian Barry; Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels; Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi; Small Island by Andrea Levy; The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath; The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy; Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe; White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Beloved by Toni Morrison, 1987

Beloved follows the story of Sethe as she tries to live as a free woman in Ohio, while battling with memories from years lived in slavery.

The novel brings the reader into Sethe’s life with her daughter and the ghosts of her past, and at the same time draws upon the wider destructive legacy of slavery and the multi-layered scars this has left in generations of black Americans.

Join the conversation - Book Club Questions

1. Why do you think the author uses flashbacks to tell the reader about Sethe’s experiences?

2. How does the novel convey the legacy and impact of slavery?

3. What role does the supernatural have in the story? How does the inclusion of ghosts and hauntings add to the atmosphere and plot?

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I never asked Tolstoy to write for me, a little colored girl in Lorain, Ohio. I never asked Joyce not to mention Catholicism or the world of Dublin. Never. And I don’t know why I should be asked to explain your life to you.
Conversations with Toni Morrison, 1994

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry, 2016

In the mid-1800s, as a young America pieces itself together and tears itself apart, Thomas McNulty, a seventeen-year-old Irish immigrant, joins the army with his companion John Cole.

Across the horrors of the Native American and Civil Wars, they explore the terrible hardships and the exquisite wonder of a country battling for its identity. Through it all, Thomas and John desperately forge their own shared path and place within a world, which can be bitter and brutal but also at times unspeakably beautiful.

Join the conversation - Book Club Questions

1. How does the exploration of personal identity relate to the wider events of the novel as a whole?

2. What effect does the style of language create? Why do you think it is written as a first-person narrative?

3. How do Thomas’s experiences compare to LGBT experiences in other novels, or other times and cultures?

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A glorious and unusual story; seamlessly interwoven period research; and above all the unfaltering power and authenticity of the narrative voice, a voice no reader is likely to forget.
Walter Scott Prize judges, 2017

Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels, 1996

Jakob Beer is rescued from the ruins of Nazi-occupied Poland by a Greek geologist, Athos.

First living in hiding, then growing up in Greece, Beer becomes a poet and, shortly before he dies, begins to write his memoirs which form the novel; it is written in language that reflects the novelist’s occupation as poet.

Join the conversation - Book Club Questions

1. Why does the author make Athos’ occupation a geologist? What is the link between Athos’ obsession with the earth and what happened to Jakob?

2. Do you think it’s important that Jakob grows up to be a poet? How do you think this helps him to confront his past?

3. What do you think Jakob is attempting to achieve through this memoir? Is a faithful reconstruction of a personal history ever possible?

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Fiction is expansive: it offers a way of layering things... It gives you the chance to bring the reader in slowly, via as many strands as you can.
Anne Michaels, The Guardian, 2009

Half Of A Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2006

Twins Olanna and Kainene live a life of privilege in the early 1960s, with lovers, servants, and a wide social circle. When civil war breaks out, their world is shattered and they are forced to flee their homes.

Life becomes precarious, and problems like love and betrayal are sidelined as violence and famine dominate their lives. The novel raises important questions about moral responsibility, colonialism, class and ethnic divisions, and belonging.

Join the conversation - Book Club Questions

1. What effect does the violence of war have on the five primary characters?

2. Did this novel give you a new understanding of Nigerian and Biafran history? What did you learn about Britain’s involvement?

3. What parallels does this novel have with refugee stories today?

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We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls 'You can have ambition, but not too much'.
Adichie's TEDx Talk 'We should all be feminists', as sampled on Beyoncé's ***Flawless

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, 2016

Homegoing tells the story of two sisters: one who is sold into slavery, the other married to a slave-owner.

The novel charts the journeys of their ancestors down through the generations and across continents, from the Gold Coast of Africa, to the plantations of Mississippi, and to the projects of Harlem. Told through 14 narrators, we see how events in the past continue to reverberate through to the modern day.

Join the conversation - Book Club Questions

1. How does the novel question the theme of home and belonging? Is home simply where we live or something more?

2. Many characters in the novel are born into slavery. In what other ways does the novel show the narrators to be enslaved or bound?

3. The story follows a family tree shown at the start of the novel. What does the novel tell us about parenthood and family? How does parenthood affect the characters in the novel?

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Homegoing weaves a spectacular epic . . . Gyasi gives voice not just to a single person or moment, but to a resonant chorus of eight generations.
Los Angeles Review of Books

Small Island by Andrea Levy, 2004

Andrea Levy’s mother and father sailed to England in 1948 on the Windrush, and through its four main characters Small Island tells of post-war Caribbean migration at that time.

Gilbert and Hortense leave behind the warmth and sunshine of Jamaica to follow their dreams of a better life in the Mother Country. They find lodgings in the house of Queenie and Bernard, at a time when London is recovering from the war. Post-war London is a cold, shabby and hostile place in which Gilbert and Hortense encounter widespread prejudice and racism.

Join the conversation - Book Club Questions

1. What is the significance of the title of the novel, Small Island?

2. Queenie, Hortense, Gilbert and Bernard narrate the story in turn. Who is your favourite character and why?

3. What differences did you see in the way the British and US armies treated their black recruits?

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The idea that me, someone from my background, could come along and write a book... that's a revelation. And literature is the most fantastic piece of communication - especially in the novel.
Andrea Levy

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, 1963

A classic of American literature, The Bell Jar tells the story of Esther Greenwood, a nineteen-year-old spending a month working in New York after winning a competition to be a junior editor at a magazine.

As she struggles to fit in with the other girls, and tells of problems she has with her family and a previous boyfriend, her mental health declines with serious consequences.

Join the conversation - Book Club Questions

1. What expectations does society have of men and women in the novel? How have those views changed?

2. What is the meaning of ‘the bell jar’ in the title?

3. How has the conversation about mental health changed since the 1960s when The Bell Jar was first published?

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I feel that in a novel you can get in toothbrushes, and all the paraphernalia of daily life... and I find this more difficult in poetry, which I feel is a tyrannical discipline.
Sylvia Plath, 1962

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, 1997

Addressing issues of politics, family relationships and forbidden love, The God of Small Things tells the story of twins, Estha and Rahel, who are forced apart following devastating events.

Through a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards, the multi-generational familial drama is revealed.

Join the conversation - Book Club Questions

1. What effect do you think the narrative structure has? Would you have read it differently if the events had been presented in chronological order?

2. How is social class, in particular the caste system, shown to be important to the characters?

3. What is the relevance of the ‘small things’ referred to throughout the novel?

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Only a novel can tell you how caste, communalisation, sexism, love, music, poetry, the rise of the right all combine in a society... We have been trained to “silo-ise”: our brains specialise in one thing. But the radical understanding is if you can understand it all, and I think only a novel can.
Arundhati Roy, The Guardian, 2018

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, 1958

Okonkwo is a well-respected warrior, an integral part of his African community who is held in high-esteem, and seen to uphold all the ways of life of his clan, grounded in tradition.

Yet the narrative is set during a time of change and transition - predominantly the arrival of Western missionaries - and a shifting of beliefs and societal structures. We follow Okonkwo as he battles these changes, and see how this ultimately leads to his downfall.

Join the conversation - Book Club Questions

1. We often see the inner turmoil of Okonkwo, which he hides from his family, such as the difference between what he feels and how he acts to preserve his sense of identity. Do you think that tension is well articulated?

2. How do you feel about the work of the Western missionaries? Are we led to see them as an imposition, or a necessary force for good?

3. Things Fall Apart is seen as blazing a trail for future African voices, and Africans 'owning' their narrative, compared to colonialist literature. What significance does this hold?

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It is the storyteller who makes us what we are, who creates history. The storyteller creates the memory that the survivors must have - otherwise their surviving would have no meaning.
Chinua Achebe

White Teeth by Zadie Smith, 2000

A sweeping saga about the actions and interactions of three generations of the Jones, Iqbal and Chalfen families.

Beginning with Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal’s friendship forged during the Second World War, and progressing to their children’s lives in London at the close of the 20th century, White Teeth explores the ways our history defines ourselves today.

Join the conversation - Book Club Questions

1. How do the Joneses, Iqbals and Chalfens discuss race and religion / belief systems across generations? How far do attitudes towards multiculturalism change these discussions and experiences?

2. How do the characters allow the idea of ‘fate’ to control their lives? Is fate important?

3. Are our identities shaped by our actions and experiences or by genetics and family history?

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The idea of multi-culturalism as an idea or an ideology is something I never understood. We don't walk around our neighbourhood thinking how is this experiment going - this is not how people live. It's just a fact.
Zadie Smith, Today, 2010

Book Club Questions on Identity

That wraps up our 10 novels in the Identity theme. Here are five questions to provoke some thoughts around your reading in this theme. And below, to continue exploring Identity, try our further reading suggestions as a starting point.

1. To what extent are characters in novels created by their surroundings, both geographically and as a result of the time period in which they live?

2. Many novels that focus on identity cover a long period of someone’s life, often drawing upon childhood experiences. Why do you think authors write their characters or plot in this way?

3. Do you think that it’s important to read novels set in countries or cultures different to your own?

4. Do you think it helps to know about an author’s own identity when reading their novel? Do you feel they can truly be separated?

5. Are there any novels that you have read with characters whose identities you can particularly relate to?

More novels exploring Identity

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Orlando by Virginia Woolf

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