When I put together my post on what makes for a good plot twist, I started thinking back to some of my favourites… and never stopped! That’s the thing about great plot twists: they live in your head rent-free for a long, long time. Here are some of the books with plot twists that are still living in mine.
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
Okay, given that the plot twist in this case has become idiomatic, it probably won’t knock your socks off (even if you’re reading it for the very first time). But can you imagine what it would have been like back in 1886, reading Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde hot off the presses? In the story, London lawyer Gabriel John Utterson hears a story about a creep named Hyde, who beat up a kid and paid the family off with a cheque drawn in the name of his mate Dr Jekyll. A few hurdles later, the truth is revealed: they’re the SAME PERSON! Mind = blown! (Or, it would’ve been…) Read my full review of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde here.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Jane Eyre is mostly known for the quote-unquote romance, and the proto-feminist ideas communicated through first-person consciousness (a ground-breaking writing technique at the time). But let’s shine a spotlight on the plot twist that has lived in my head rent-free ever since I read it: the fact that the leading man wasn’t just brooding and mysterious, he had an actual wife that he locked in the attic and basically abused to the brink of insanity. I mean… what?! The Brontës sure did level-up on Austen, whose “bad boys” were – at worst – kind of rude at parties. Read my full review of Jane Eyre here.
A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood
For the most part, A Single Man goes the way that you’d expect. It’s the story of a day in the life of a man grieving the loss of his partner, in a time and place where their relationship was hidden and his status as a widower completely invisible to those around him. It’s heart-wrenching, and awful, but Isherwood’s skill with the pen makes it compelling enough to devour in a single sitting. Plus, his friends and neighbours are kooky enough to keep it interesting. And then you get to the final pages, the end of the day, and it ends with a gut-punch you never saw coming, one that will surely have you reaching for the tissue box. Read my full review of A Single Man here.
Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
If a book’s called Big Little Lies, you’ve got to expect a mind-blowing secret or two to come out. Moriarty sure delivers! It wasn’t exactly a surprise that the nervous waify young mother was the victim of a sexual assault, but that her new best friends know the perpetrator? That he’s actually married to one of them? That it all boils over at a school fundraiser trivia night, where one of the parties ends up dead? This book is Moriarty at her absolute finest, a gloriously twisty domestic thriller that’s sure to keep you entertained on your next beach holiday. Read my full review of Big Little Lies here.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
We really had a glut of “girl” thrillers for a minute there, and most of them were pretty average. None of them quite lived up to the best-seller that started it all: Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. For the first half of the novel, it all seems fairly standard. A promising young woman missing, presumed dead (or, at least, not in good shape), and a dodgy husband under suspicion. He insists that he’s innocent, but don’t they all? And then Flynn reveals the truth to the reader, in a delicious twist of dramatic irony that will have you gripping the pages so hard your knuckles turn white. Many have tried, and almost as many have failed, to replicate this brilliant unreliable-narrator plot twist that will live in your head rent-free. Read my full review of Gone Girl here.
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
Speaking of unreliable narrators: it’s not often you find one that’s unreliable but not unlikeable. Piranesi finds that magical balance. Even though Piranesi’s story is told through his diaries, the reader quickly realises that he doesn’t exactly understand the truth of what is going on. Piranesi’s mistakes and oversights aren’t self-serving slips of the ego, they are a genuine product of his environment and his long-term isolation. That’s how he wriggles his way into your heart, and when the truth of his circumstances are finally revealed, it will break open for him. Unlike most books that are predicated on plot twists, Piranesi is one that you can read over and over again and still find something new to appreciate every time.
Earthlings by Sayaka Murata
Of course, when you pick up a book by Sayaka Murata, you know you’re in for something weird… but there’s no way to anticipate just how weird when it comes to Earthlings. It starts with a child who doesn’t fit in. Her parents favour her sister, and her best friend is a stuffed hedgehog. She decides she must be an alien, from the planet Popinpobopia – but is this a flight of childish fancy, or a hint to something darker? Earthlings doesn’t so much twist as it does veer wildly off course, but either way the ending will leave your mouth hanging open and your eyes bugging out of your head. This is the book that made Muraka an automatic-buy author for me.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
Alright, if you’re a regular Keeper Upperer, you had to know this was coming. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves sets the bar (the high, high bar) against which all literary fiction plot twists shall be measured. What seems to be a regular family drama takes a turn that you can’t possibly see coming, about seventy pages in. It blew my mind so hard, it was the first review for Keeping Up With The Penguins in which I provided an actual spoiler warning! All I’ll say here is that it’s a reveal that challenges all of your assumptions and prompts you to reexamine everything, in the book and in your personal ethics. This remains one of my most-often recommended books, and it never fails to surprise and delight. Read my full review of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves here.