Far from being merely a source of entertainment, storytelling frames reinforce and transmit culture and beliefs. More than that, stories have the power to fire the imagination and inspire new thoughts and ideas and thus to shape – or reshape – the perspective of individuals, communities and cultures about everything from tradition to gender.
In recognition of the power of storytelling to inspire change, The Pixel Project has put together our third annual selection of 16 books that depict violence against women and girls. Some of these stories are popular genre fiction while others are well-received non-fiction. Nevertheless, all of them will educate the reader in some way about gender-based violence, rape culture, sexism, and misogyny. The books and book series in this list have been selected from a wide range of genres including fantasy, crime/mystery, science fiction, and autobiography.
This year, our fiction selection are books led by female protagonists who have experienced VAW and whose stories show the aftermath of the violence on their lives and how they cope with it. For the first time, we also include a number of romance series and novels as acknowledgement of how romance has evolved to actively address issues of consent and violence against women.
Our non-fiction selection shows a common trend of depicting entrenched and pervasive violence against women and sexism in the diverse societies and worlds that they portray while offering threads of hope as people and characters fight for and maintain a world where women and girls are free from abuse.
This list is by no means complete as there are hundreds of books out there that deal with violence against women in its various forms. However, we hope that these 16 books and series will be a starting point for you, as they have for others over the years, to push for change in your community and culture.
Introduction by Anushia Kandasivam and Regina Yau; Written and compiled by Anushia Kandasivam and Regina Yau
Book Selection #1: Asking for It (2016) by Louise O’Neill
Narrated by 18-year-old Emma O’Donovan, who was raped after a party, this novel explores how a person can become objectified in a world ruled by social media and where misogynistic rape culture is the norm. An unusual and visceral story in that the protagonist herself is unlikeable with unlikeable friends and it does not hold back on portraying how vile the online world can become, it skillfully chronicles the physical and psychological effects of being violated, feeling voiceless and descending into depression. It also asks important questions about rape culture, sexism and social media abuse.
Book Selection #2: A Thousand Splendid Suns (2008) by Khaled Hosseini
The second novel by Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini after his debut The Kite Runner, this story is primarily about female relationships, set against a backdrop of a patriarchal society, domestic violence and war. The story follows Mariam and Laila, born a generation apart but brought together by circumstance that makes them both sisters and mother-daughter to each other. It tracks the strong bond they form as they struggle to live with an abusive husband and the ever-increasing danger and hardship of living in Kabul, and how the love, strength and self-sacrifice of women are often the key to survival.
Book Selection #3: Desert Flower (1998) by Waris Dirie and Catherine Miller
Born to a nomadic family in the Somali desert, Waris Dirie was subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM) at the age of five. This autobiography details her difficult childhood in a harsh land, where she had to contend with oppressive patriarchal norms and sexual abuse, to an arduous journey to London where she worked as a housemaid, and then her remarkable transformation into an internationally acclaimed fashion model and human rights ambassador. In her book, Dirie speaks openly about living with the effects of FGM and frankly about why the practice must be stopped. Experiencing the everyday life of a survivor through her own words makes this a worthy read.
Book Selection #4: I Am Vidya: A Transgender’s Journey (2013) by Living Smile Vidya
A compelling autobiography of a transgender woman’s journey to find and live her true identity, this book is also a unique insight into the duality of conservative Indian society and its rich cultural history. Vidya chronicles her journey from being born a boy, realising her true nature, being an outcast from her family and society, suffering the indignities and violence forced upon transgender people and her eventual claiming of her true self.
Book Selection #5: Lake Silence (2018) by Anne Bishop
In her latest book set in the bestselling urban fantasy series of The Others, Anne Bishop makes her lead protagonist Vicki DeVine, a divorced woman who left her abusive husband to carve out a new life for herself as the proprietor and caretaker of a rustic resort that she inherited via her divorce settlement. Bishop presents a nuanced, sensitive, and compassionate portrait of a survivor navigating through PTSD and other fallouts from her abusive marriage while also solving a murder mystery involving her abusive ex. Not your usual urban fantasy or mystery fare. And the best part? The abuser gets his comeuppance in the most satisfying way.
Book Selection #6: Mommy’s Black Eye (2009) by William George Bentrim, illustrated by Christi Schofield
Domestic violence exists everywhere. Often, children may not actually witness the violence but see the aftermath, such as their mother’s black eye. Aimed at younger children who have not been exposed to the topic of domestic violence before, this book glosses over some of the bigger issues of domestic violence but explains what it is and attempts to help them understand what is going on in their lives. It concludes open-ended with discussion of counselling and potential healing as a family.
Book Selection #7: Practical Magic (2003) by Alice Hoffman
Practical Magic is one of #1 New York Times bestselling author Alice Hoffman’s most famous (and cherished) books. The story centers around the Owens family of witches who have, for more than two hundred years, been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in their Massachusetts town. Even more insidious is the curse that an ancestor laid on them that decreed that no Owens woman would ever find true love… and if she did, that relationship would end with her lover’s death. Among other feminist themes, the book focuses on Sally and Gillian Owens who attempt to escape the Owens curse, but end up having to deal with Gillian’s malicious and abusive boyfriend. Hoffman handles the subject of domestic violence very deftly through the eyes of both sisters – showing Sally’s unwavering support of Gillian despite their differences and how both of them cope with the fallout from the abuser’s actions and accidental murder.
Books Selection #8: Rape: A Love Story (2004) by Joyce Carol Oates
Beginning with an account of the gang rape of female protagonist Teena Maguire, which left her near dead, and which was witnessed by her young daughter, this story is a condemnation of misogyny, skillfully tackled by author Joyce Carol Oates, who also wrote When We Were the Mulvaneys. Oates spares none of her characters – Teena is shown to be both good and flawed, there are no doubts about who the attackers are and they are named and described contemptuously. This is an extraordinary exploration of the aftermath and myriad consequences a horrible crime can have on individuals and whole communities.
Book Selection #9: Room (2011) by Emma Donoghue
This story is perhaps better known through the award-winning 2015 film adaptation, but the novel is well worth the read. Told through the eyes of curious, bright 5-year-old Jack as he explores the only world he knows – the tiny Room where he was born after his mother was imprisoned by the man who kidnapped her as a teenager – the story is really about how Jack and his mother cope with their captivity, slowly learn to live in the outside world again and deal with their trauma, how other people react to them, and the complex feelings of happiness and grief that they and their family go through.
Book Selection #10: Set The Night On Fire (2016) by Jennifer Bernard
Jennifer Bernard is a Romance author who is well-known for her books starring firemen as the lead male love interest. While this may lead many people to regard her books as typical wish-fulfillment fare for straight female readers, Bernard’s books are a cut above many others in the crowded field of Contemporary Romance because she is very adept at handling the issue of consent. In Set The Night On Fire, the first book in her Jupiter Point series, she handles the issue of rape and victim-blaming with insight and a strong message about believing victims and holding rapists accountable.
Book Selection #11: Simply Irresistible (2017) by Jill Shalvis
#1 New York Times bestselling contemporary romance author Jill Shalvis is renowned for her humour and ability to portray emotions authentically, particularly in her female characters, as they go through the ups and downs of building relationships with the men in their lives. In Simply Irresistible, the first book in her Lucky Harbour series, Shalvis takes on the issue of intimate partner violence and how its effects ripple through the lives of the protagonist, her sisters, and her love interest. Shalvis’ approach is less on-the-nose than many of the other selections in this list so it may be a good option for introducing the issue to a fellow romance reader who may not have thought about it previously.
Book Selection #12: The Alpha and Omega series (2008 – ) by Patricia Briggs
The Alpha and Omega series is Patricia Briggs’ spin-off companion series to her celebrated Mercy Thompson Urban Fantasy series. Anna Latham, the lead female protagonist, is a survivor of prolonged abuse (including rape) by the deranged and power-hungry alpha of a werewolf pack which tried to force her Omega wolf into servitude to them. In the first book of the series (Cry Wolf), we see Briggs very adroitly explore and show the psychological effects of rape and abuse on victims, the damage caused by bystanders who would rather turn a blind eye, and the monumental struggle that survivors face in learning to trust and relax around others.
Book Selection #13: The In Death series (1995 – ) by J.D. Robb
J.D. Robb is the pen name that #1 New York Times bestselling author Nora Roberts uses for her long-running and very popular near-future In Death series which features Lieutenant Eve Dallas and her criminal mastermind-turned-legitimate-business-tycoon husband Roarke. Eve survived vicious childhood sexual abuse by her father to go on to be one of the toughest officers in New York City and the go-to detective for difficult cases involving the full spectrum of crimes involving violence against women and children. Throughout this very long series, Robb/Roberts gives readers a clear and unflinching look at the lifelong effects of sexual abuse via Eve’s development as a character. The striking thing is that while Eve’s experience certainly drives her fight for justice, she does not let it rule her life and she does this with the help of her friends, co-workers, and husband – a clear message that it takes a village to help with the healing.
Book Selection #14: The Kitty Norville series (2005 – 2015) by Carrie Vaughn
New York Times bestselling Fantasy author Carrie Vaughn is best-known for her Kitty Norville series featuring the rise of Kitty Norville, a female werewolf and late-night radio talk show host for the supernatural, from an abused subordinate to a major power in her own right. The entire first book in the series (Kitty and The Midnight Hour) is a searing depiction of domestic abuse including coercive control tactics that the corrupt Alpha male of Kitty’s pack uses on her and other females – essentially dictating their lives as well as raping them when he feels like it. As the series progresses, Kitty goes on to leave the pack, try to help another subordinate female wolf leave, and eventually wrest control of the pack from him. Also notable is Kitty’s eventual choice of romantic partner, which sees her essentially opt to have a healthy relationship based on mutual respect and equality.
Book Selection #15: The Night Child (2018) by Anna Quinn
A psychological tale about a school teacher who starts seeing terrifying visions of a child, The Night Child starts as something of a thriller but as protagonist Nora Brown seeks medical help, she soon discovers that the apparition may be related to repressed childhood trauma. A debut novel by Anna Quinn, this story examines how the impact of childhood trauma lasts into adulthood. As a lot of the story unfolds in the therapist’s office, the fragility and strength of the mind and the importance of mental health for survivors is a strong theme. This novel may be emotionally challenging to read but it does offer hope in the form of the protagonist’s resilience and determination to save herself.
Book Selection #16: When I Hit You or, A Portrait of the Author as a Young Wife (2018) by Meena Kandasamy
Based on the author’s own experience of marriage, this first-person narrative tells the story of a newly-wed writer experiencing rapid social isolation and extreme violence at her husband’s hands. The narrator, a middle-class and educated Tamil woman, points out that she does not experience stereotypical Indian dramas of oppression but rather the villain is an educated and cultured man she married for love. A gripping and scathing exploration of insidious abuse, gender and societal expectations, and perpetuated toxic masculinity, it is also a story of a woman refusing to be silenced.
The top picture is a Creative Commons image :
- Picture 1: Photo by Min An from Pexels
Book Cover Credits
- Asking For It – From “Asking For It” (Goodreads)
- A Thousand Splendid Suns – From “A Thousand Splendid Suns” (Goodreads)
- Desert Flower – From “Desert Flower” (Goodreads)
- I Am Vidya: A Transgender’s Journey – From “I Am Vidya: A Transgender’s Journey” (Goodreads)
- Lake Silence – Courtesy of Ace, an imprint of Penguin Random House
- Mommy’s Black Eye – From “Mommy’s Black Eye” (Goodreads)
- Practical Magic – Courtesy of Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Random House
- Rape: A Love Story – From “Rape: A Love Story” (Amazon.com)
- Room – From “Room” (Amazon.com)
- Set The Night On Fire – From jenniferbernard.net
- Simply Irresistible – From “Simply Irresistible” (Goodreads)
- Cry Wolf – Courtesy of Ace, an imprint of Penguin Random House
- Naked in Death – From “Naked In Death” (Amazon.co.uk)
- Kitty Saves The World – Courtesy of Carrie Vaughn
- The Night Child – From “The Night Child” (Goodreads)
- When I Hit You or, A Portrait of the Author as a Young Wife – From “When I Hit You” (Amazon)