6 Bold Novels That Imagine New Realities

March 1 2022
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Some of the best kinds of books are those that confront you with a question. An author poses a hypothetical to the reader, intricately introducing characters and a plot that turns that question, that “what if,” into a new reality for us to ponder and, ultimately, come to terms with. Oftentimes, the question at hand is simple enough to comprehend but bold enough to make you stop and think—requiring you to put yourself into the novel and see the world as the author has imaginatively designed. For better or for worse.

If you’re looking to grapple with such questions (and maybe even attempt to answer them), then take a look at this collection of “what if” novels that may just leave your head spinning.

Tell Me an Ending
by Jo Harkin

What if you could remove all the painful memories currently floating around in your brain? That’s the question Jo Harkin presents in her masterful debut, TELL ME AN ENDING, in which a medical company in another reality provides memory deletion services for any paying customer. Upon removing such hazardous materials, patients are classified as either “self-informed” (being aware of the procedure that they’ve undergone) or “self-confidential” (choosing to forget the deletions). Harkin follows Noor, a psychologist at the memory removal clinic, as she intersects with four different patients, each of whom are dealing with their own questions of self and the impact of separating from their memories. Smart, propulsive, and emotionally effective, TELL ME AN ENDING will leave you questioning the characters’ (and maybe your own) life choices.

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Tell Me an Ending
Jo Harkin

Never Let Me Go meets Black Mirror in this thrilling dystopian debut about a tech company that deletes unwanted memories, the consequences for those forced to contend with what they tried to forget, and the dissenting doctor who seeks to protect her patients from further harm.

What if you once had a painful memory removed? And what if you were offered the chance to get it back?

Tell Me an Ending follows four characters grappling with the question of what to remember—and what they hoped to forget forever.

Finn, an Irish architect living in the Arizona desert, begins to suspect his charming wife of having an affair. Mei, a troubled grad school drop-out in Kuala Lumpur, wonders why she remembers a city she’s never visited. William, a former police inspector in England, struggles with PTSD, the breakdown of his marriage, and his own secret family history. Oscar, a handsome young man with almost no memories at all, travels the world in a constant state of fear.

Into these characters lives comes Noor, an emotionally closed-off psychologist at the memory removal clinic in London, who begins to suspect her glamorous boss Louise of serious wrongdoing.

Clever and propulsive, Tell Me an Ending is a speculative novel exploring what the world would be like if we were able to wipe away our worst moments. In this polyphonic tale, author Jo Harkin raises provocative questions about the nature of memory, through characters who confront new knowledge about themselves and a need for answers, meaning, connection, and story.

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The School for Good Mothers
by Jessamine Chan

Questions pertaining to parenthood have existed for as long as anyone can remember. Sadly, these questions all too often shine an unfair spotlight on a mother’s role in a child’s development. Jessamine Chan’s THE SCHOOL FOR GOOD MOTHERS chooses to further unpack this tendency, creating a dystopia where a government reform program can deem mothers unfit based on a single mistake. Frida is one such mother. Coping as a single mom following her husband's pursuit of a younger woman, Frida is left juggling a job and an eighteen-month-old. But when she experiences a “very bad day”—leaving her daughter, Harriet, unattended, Frida is taken into custody and ultimately to reform school with other “irresponsible” mothers. Chan’s debut novel is explosive and enthralling, inviting readers to explore a future that asks: What if “bad” mothers could be reformed?

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The School for Good Mothers
Jessamine Chan

In this taut and explosive debut novel, one lapse in judgement lands a young mother in a government reform program where custody of her child hangs in the balance.

Frida Liu is struggling. She doesn’t have a career worthy of her Chinese immigrant parents’ sacrifices. She can’t persuade her husband, Gust, to give up his wellness-obsessed younger mistress. Only with Harriet, their cherubic daughter, does Frida finally attain the perfection expected of her. Harriet may be all she has, but she is just enough.

Until Frida has a very bad day.

The state has its eyes on mothers like Frida. The ones who check their phones, letting their children get injured on the playground; who let their children walk home alone. Because of one moment of poor judgment, a host of government officials will now determine if Frida is a candidate for a Big Brother-like institution that measures the success or failure of a mother’s devotion.

Faced with the possibility of losing Harriet, Frida must prove that a bad mother can be redeemed. That she can learn to be good.

A searing page-turner that is also a transgressive novel of ideas about the perils of “perfect” upper-middle class parenting; the violence enacted upon women by both the state and, at times, one another; the systems that separate families; and the boundlessness of love, The School for Good Mothers introduces, in Frida, an everywoman for the ages. Using dark wit to explore the pains and joys of the deepest ties that bind us, Chan has written a modern literary classic.

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And Again
by Jessica Chiarella

Jessica Chiarella’s debut novel, AND AGAIN, asks readers perhaps the ultimate “what if” question, about the opportunity to have a second chance at life—and all the unforeseen challenges that come with such a restart. This novel follows four individuals, all near death and selected for a pilot medical program. Each is to have their existing memories transplanted into healthy clones of their bodies. As the author explores each of the four’s adjustment to their new bodies, the reader is confronted with a series of complex questions regarding the connection of one’s identity to both their mind and their physical form. Can they acclimate to their previous lives? Is there really hope in second chances? Find out in AND AGAIN, Chiarella’s unforgettable work of fiction about starting life anew.

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And Again
Jessica Chiarella

What would you do if you had a second chance at life?

Hannah, David, Connie, and Linda have been given the second chance of a lifetime—genetically perfect bodies as part of a medically advanced pilot program seeking FDA approval. Their new bodies are exact replicas of their old selves—without the deadly illnesses they suffered from. Even better, their imperfections have been erased. Blemishes, scars, and wrinkles have all disappeared, their bodies are pristine, their vision is impeccable.

Yet the fresh start they’ve been given is anything but perfect. Without their old bodies, their new physical identities have no memories. Hannah, an artistic prodigy, has to relearn how to hold a brush; David, a Congressman, grapples with his old habits; Connie, an actress whose stunning looks are restored after a protracted illness, tries to navigate an industry obsessed with physical beauty; and Linda, who spent eight years paralyzed after a car accident, now struggles to reconnect with a family that seems to have built a new life without her.

As each tries to re-enter their previous lives and relationships, they are faced with the question: how much of who you are rests not just in your mind, but in your heart and your body? In the spirit of Never Let Me Go and The Age of Miracles, And Again is an exciting debut about identity, second chances, and the courage to start life afresh.

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The Candy House
by Jennifer Egan

As a disclaimer, I have to tell you: Jennifer Egan is one of my favorite authors. But even if you’re unfamiliar with her previous works, including novels like LOOK AT ME, THE KEEP, and, of course, A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD, her latest, THE CANDY HOUSE, is equally as moving. In fact, considered a sibling novel to GOON SQUAD, THE CANDY HOUSE seeks to find meaning in a world where memories and identities are no longer private. Set in the near future, a company, Own Your Unconscious, has made it possible to access any memory you’ve ever had as well as to trade your memories for others’. Weaving together interconnected narratives (some of which feature characters from A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD), Egan’s brilliance is again on display as she explores the users who seek to exploit these memories in a myriad of ways for their personal gain. The premise may seem simple: “What if others could access your memories?” but the repercussions are boundless and, as only she can, Egan navigates this conceit with a dynamic plot that exhilarates readers and leaves them hungry for more.

Check out the book trailer for a creepy sneak peek into the book, and our potential future:

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The Candy House
Jennifer Egan

From one of the most celebrated writers of our time, a literary figure with cult status, a “sibling novel” to her Pulitzer Prize- and NBCC Award-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad—an electrifying, deeply moving novel about the quest for authenticity and meaning in a world where memories and identities are no longer private.

The Candy House opens with the staggeringly brilliant Bix Bouton, whose company, Mandala, is so successful that he is “one of those tech demi-gods with whom we’re all on a first name basis.” Bix is 40, with four kids, restless, desperate for a new idea, when he stumbles into a conversation group, mostly Columbia professors, one of whom is experimenting with downloading or “externalizing” memory. It’s 2010. Within a decade, Bix’s new technology, “Own Your Unconscious”—that allows you access to every memory you’ve ever had, and to share every memory in exchange for access to the memories of others—has seduced multitudes. But not everyone.

In spellbinding interlocking narratives, Egan spins out the consequences of Own Your Unconscious through the lives of multiple characters whose paths intersect over several decades. Intellectually dazzling, The Candy House is also extraordinarily moving, a testament to the tenacity and transcendence of human longing for real connection, love, family, privacy and redemption. In the world of Egan’s spectacular imagination, there are “counters” who track and exploit desires and there are “eluders,” those who understand the price of taking a bite of the Candy House. Egan introduces these characters in an astonishing array of narrative styles—from omniscient to first person plural to a duet of voices, an epistolary chapter and a chapter of tweets.

If Goon Squad was organized like a concept album, The Candy House incorporates Electronic Dance Music’s more disjunctive approach. The parts are titled: Build, Break, Drop. With an emphasis on gaming, portals, and alternate worlds, its structure also suggests the experience of moving among dimensions in a role-playing game.

The Candy House is a bold, brilliant imagining of a world that is moments away. Egan takes to stunning new heights her “deeply intuitive forays into the darker aspects of our technology-driven, image-saturated culture” (Vogue). The Candy House delivers an absolutely extraordinary combination of fierce, exhilarating intelligence and heart.

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The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
by Claire North

Almost as pressing as whether or not you could have a second chance at life is the concept of reliving your life over and over again. Claire North’s THE FIRST FIFTEEN LIVES OF HARRY AUGUST explores the possibility of doing just that with the knowledge gained from previous experiences. Such is the conundrum for Harry August, the illegitimate son of a wealthy landowner. Known as a Kalachakra, one with the ability to relive their lives, and a mnemonic, one with the ability to remember the details of those past lives, Harry finds himself working with a secret society to learn why the world is coming to an end earlier and earlier as foretold by future generations. With North’s keen eye for historical happenings, readers not only travel back in time with Harry on numerous occasions but also witness alternate timelines that will confound and entertain you to no end—literally. Told methodically, with never-ending layers of context, THE FIRST FIFTEEN LIVES OF HARRY AUGUST is a “what if” novel you can’t afford to miss.

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The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
Claire North

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The Startup Wife
by Tahmima Anam

By now, one would assume that technology has laid waste to all the “what ifs” that even fiction could devise, but Tahmima Anam’s THE STARTUP WIFE looks to challenge that notion, and our society’s rituals, all in one go. Asha Ray is a coder of immense talent on the brink of a scientific breakthrough when her path crosses with that of a former high school love interest, Cyrus. Cyrus, brilliant in his own way, has dedicated his life to creative “alternative rituals” from the spiritual traditions of the Earth. As the two link up and marry, Asha creates an app to bring her new husband’s ideology to the world of social media. WAI (We Are Infinite) becomes an instant sensation, launching the app and Cyrus to stardom for its ability to create new rituals and outcomes—including whether Asha and Cyrus’ marriage can stand the success and international obsession of WAI. What if technology truly had boundless power? Would it advance modern love or leave it destroyed in its wake? Find out in Tahmim Anam’s amazing novel.

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The Startup Wife
Tahmima Anam

“Tahmima Anam deftly uses humor to explore both start-up culture and the institution of marriage in an utterly charming and genuinely thoughtful way.” —Rumaan Alam, author of Leave the World Behind

Newlyweds Asha and Cyrus build an app that replaces religious rituals and soon find themselves running one of the most popular social media platforms in the world.

Meet Asha Ray.

Brilliant coder and possessor of a Pi tattoo, Asha is poised to revolutionize artificial intelligence when she is reunited with her high school crush, Cyrus Jones.

Cyrus inspires Asha to write a new algorithm. Before she knows it, she’s abandoned her PhD program, they’ve exchanged vows, and gone to work at an exclusive tech incubator called Utopia.

The platform creates a sensation, with millions of users seeking personalized rituals every day. Will Cyrus and Asha’s marriage survive the pressures of sudden fame, or will she become overshadowed by the man everyone is calling the new messiah?

In this gripping, blistering novel, award-winning author Tahmima Anam takes on faith and the future with a gimlet eye and a deft touch. Come for the radical vision of human connection, stay for the wickedly funny feminist look at startup culture and modern partnership. Can technology—with all its limits and possibilities—disrupt love?

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Photo credit: iStock / fcscafeine

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