Novels That Tackle Sexual Assault

Novels That Tackle Sexual Assault

On Thursday, Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were teenagers, is scheduled to testify before Congress to address the allegations. Since she went public, two more women have come forward with stories of inappropriate behavior by the judge. Stories like theirs have often been explored in literature; here are 14 books that deal with rape and sexual assault.

THE LUCKIEST GIRL ALIVE by Jessica Knoll (2015)

Ani FaNelli’s life is, ostensibly, perfect. She writes a sex column for a women’s magazine and has a successful boyfriend. But when Ani decides to reveal the details of a traumatic experience from her time at a prestigious private school, she worries that her carefully curated existence will fall apart. Reese Witherspoon acquired movie rights to Knoll’s best-selling novel.

AN UNTAMED STATE by Roxane Gay (2014)

In Gay’s debut novel, Mireille Duval Jameson, the daughter of a wealthy Haitian construction magnate, is kidnapped in Port-au-Prince. The abduction happens in broad daylight and is witnessed by her husband, a white American, and other passers-by. Her father refuses to pay the ransom, and she is held for 13 days, enduring brutal sexual violence by a gang of men. After she is released, Mireille attempts to piece herself back together after her “death.” Our reviewer called the novel “striking.”

HIS FAVORITES by Kate Walbert (2018)

On one drunken night, three teenage girls go on a joy ride in a stolen golf cart and, when the cart crashes, one dies instantly. After the tragedy, the driver, Jo, escapes to boarding school, where she attracts the attention of a popular English teacher. An adult Jo recounts a series of shattering events that follow, as well as the pain of asking for help and not being believed. According to our reviewer, “‘His Favorites’ isn’t a simple narrative of trauma and survival, but something more challenging, and potentially more valuable — a reckoning not just with the reality of abuse, but with the pernicious ways it can shape and inform everything, even the stories you tell yourself.”

HISTORY OF VIOLENCE by Édouard Louis (2018)

This autobiographical novel is based on the writer’s real life experience of being raped, threatened with a gun and nearly strangled by a man he met on Christmas Eve in 2012. The book straddles the line between memoir and fiction, with Mr. Louis positioning himself “as an eavesdropper listening in behind a door on a conversation about the attack between his sister and her husband.”

SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson (1999)

Considered a seminal young adult book that tackles sexual assault, this novel follows a teenage Melinda Sordino during her freshman year of high school. She is ostracized by her peers after breaking up an end-of-summer party by calling the police, and throughout the book she struggles to explain what prompted her to do so.

THIRTEEN REASONS WHY by Jay Asher (2007)

Before it was a Netflix series (the story has been expanded into a second season), Hannah Baker’s suicide tapes were introduced in this novel. The book is told through the transcripts of 13 tapes left by Hannah after she dies by suicide, each one shedding light on the tragedy. Asher’s novel was a “stealthy hit with surprising staying power.”

THE LOVELY BONES by Alice Sebold (2002)

This book is told from the perspective of Susie Salmon from the afterlife after she is raped and murdered. Susie is able to stay connected to her family by watching them from heaven, but witnessing their lives — especially the rites of passage of her teenage sister, which she’ll never experience — makes her yearn for her life on Earth. According to our reviewer, “what might play as a sentimental melodrama in the hands of a lesser writer becomes in this volume a keenly observed portrait of familial love and how it endures and changes over time.”

LIVIA LONE by Barry Eisler (2016)

This thriller centers on a Seattle police officer named Livia, whose parents sold her and her sister, Nason, to a gang of Thai traffickers as children. Livia volunteered to take the brunt of their abuse to spare her sister, and according to our reviewer, “These sections are hard to read, but never gratuitous, and, like the whole book, feel emotionally true at each beat.” The present action finds Livia back in the United States, trying to track down her sister, from whom she was separated, as well as her abusers.

MY ABSOLUTE DARLING by Gabriel Tallent (2017)

The heroine of this novel, Turtle, is a 14-year-old girl growing up in the forests of Northern California with her father, Martin, a tortured widower who has been teaching her survival skills since she was a child. When she meets a boy, her isolation from the world and the unsustainability of her life with her father comes into focus, and she starts to plot her escape. Our review called Tallent “fearless when evoking what the body can withstand” and “scrupulous at capturing the visible world,” even if he did not delve as deeply into the characters’ interiority.

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A LITTLE LIFE by Hanya Yanagihara (2015)

This novel, written by the editor of The New York Times’s T magazine, became a best-seller when it was released three years ago. It’s about four college friends — Malcolm, J.B., Willem and Jude — who move to New York after school to pursue their respective careers. But the story is anchored by Jude, marred by unspeakable childhood trauma that makes it hard for him to connect with his friends and the other people trying to help him.

THE COLOR PURPLE by Alice Walker (1982)

This epistolary novel, now a classic, is about Celie, a poor Southern black woman mired by her circumstances, having experienced abuse first at the hands of her stepfather and then her husband, Albert. She eventually escapes to Memphis and starts her own business. “This plot summary reflects neither the density of subtle interactions among the characters nor the novel’s intense emotional impact,” wrote our reviewer, adding that it brought “into sharper focus many of the diverse themes that threaded their way through” Walker’s previous work.

LOLITA by Vladimir Nabokov (1958)

Partially inspired by the real life kidnapping of Sally Horner, this classic novel is narrated by Humbert Humbert, a child molester who describes an affair with a 12-year-old he kidnapped and held for two years. He is writing from prison, where he is awaiting trial for murder. At the time that “Lolita” was published, there were mixed reviews, but it was widely viewed as a tragedy of a man tormented by lust; today, it’s read through the lens of pedophilia.

WRECKED by Maria Padian (2016)

Set on a college campus, this novel offers a kaleidoscopic account of one woman’s assault. When Jenny accuses Jordan of raping her at a party, a group of students, including Jenny’s roommate Haley, and Jordan’s housemate Richard, become embroiled in the conflict, offering different — often conflicting — accounts of what happened that night.

THE POWER by Naomi Alderman (2017)

In this dystopian novel, British novelist Alderman imagines an inverse power structure in which women develop the ability to generate powerful electric shocks from their bodies. The story is told from four perspectives: that of Margot, a politician in the United States; Allie, a girl who escapes an abusive foster home where she was regularly raped by her foster dad; Tunde, a young Nigerian journalist; and Roxy, the daughter of a British drug lord. Our reviewer was “riveted by every page” and called Alderman’s prose “immersive and, well, electric.”

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