Girl alone on pier

Literature loves a misfit. Here are 6 books which explore themes of isolation, alienation, fitting in – and doing your own thing when society tells you not to.

1. Convenience Store Woman

Sayaka Murata (2016)

Keiko knows she’s different – and she knows that bothers her family and friends. She’s not married, has never had a boyfriend, and isn’t interested in a career: all Keiko wants is to work in the convenience store that’s become her second home. To keep others off her back, she learns how to mimic her colleagues – speaking and dressing just like them so they never get too suspicious. Eventually, however, even Keiko can’t ignore peer pressure. More about this book.

2. Into the Wild

Jon Krakauer (1996)

Into the Wild is a non-fiction book, but it’s just as readable, affecting and memorable as any work of fiction (perhaps even more so, because it’s a true story). In it, Krakauer pieces together the life of Chris McCandless, a young man who ups and leaves a comfortable and privileged family life to live in the wild in Alaska. McCandless wants to live on his own, free of the manipulation and hyper-consumption that comes with modern life – but it’s a journey that ends in tragedy.

3. The Stepford Wives

Ira Levin (1972)

When Joanna Eberhart moves to Stepford with her husband and kids, she quickly realises she’s not like the other wives. She’s a photographer and feminist; they’re all flawless, dedicated housewives – and all they care about is keeping house while their husbands attend the local Men’s Association. At first the isolation bothers Joanna. Then she realises there’s something disturbing about the way women who come to Stepford transform overnight into smiling, empty-headed housekeepers. Is Joanna next? More about this book.

4. The Talented Mr Ripley

Patricia Highsmith (1955)

Like Murata’s ultra-millennial heroine in Convenience Store Woman, Tom Ripley is a man who only pretends to fit in. Like Keiko, Ripley also does this through mimicry – although in his case it’s to an extreme, disturbing end: he murders his friend, then pretends to be him. Ripley doesn’t do this because he wants others to like him, but (like Keiko) he realises that people stop interfering when they assume you’re just like them. More about this book.

5. Goodbye to Berlin

Christopher Isherwood (1939)

Not all misfits try to fit in: the narrator/author of Goodbye to Berlin uses his alienation to observe others with great accuracy. The result is a book composed of portraits of con artists, bohemians and others trying to make a living even as pre-war Berlin decays around them. More about this book.

6. Good Morning, Midnight

Jean Rhys (1936)

Sasha is middle aged, unmarried, often drunk, and struggling with her mental health. The story she tells in Good Morning, Midnight is almost dream-like – a series of encounters in bars and hotel rooms in which she always seems to misjudge people or say the wrong thing. This book reeks unapologetically of isolation. More about this book.

Picture credit: Larm Rmah