Top 10 secrets in fiction

From the hidden passions of Mrs Dalloway to Patrick Bateman’s murderous designs, these books expose a subject we all privately love

People love secrets, and the pleasure of uncovering them. I don’t read many crime novels or thrillers, it is the small revelations of life that excite me. The butterfly eggs under the leaf. The hands of shoplifters. The myriad omissions of small talk. Of course, as soon as you start writing a book, a secret life begins. Time snatched to be alone, making stuff up – what a strange thing to do.

The secret life of Leda, the dead woman at the centre of my novel Strange Heart Beating, is revealed in snatches to the reader but not to her widower, Seb, who stumbles his way through the forests of her home in Latvia in ignorance. I don’t think we can ever know the people we love. But through Seb I looked to explore the grasping desire to know as much as possible, and to make sense of it. Literature can use secrecy as a device to ensnare readers, to pull the wool over their eyes or to reveal to them things that the characters can’t see. Whether large – businessman by day, serial killer by night; or small – where a character silently yearns for an ex-lover. These books represent some of my most beloved secret literary lives.

1. The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
The first of modern literature’s great concealers to come to my mind is, of course, Gatsby. His great love Daisy’s laugh, “sounds like money” and the prose does something similar depicting Jazz Age plutocrats. It’s clipped and brittle and stylish as hell. And then there’s poor, lamentable James Gatz – Gatsby’s real name – with his shady past. He is proof that we can – to some degree – become anyone we set our minds to becoming. And yet, as the book famously closes, we are still “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”.

2. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Clarissa Dalloway’s private life is reverentially portrayed by Woolf. She feels a disconnect between herself and her husband, but is ambivalent about it – it is a necessary cruelty. In the midst of this isolation, she can feel great passion and still remain powerful, untouched and unhindered. Her memories of her past lover are that with him, “everything had to be shared; everything gone into. And it was intolerable.” A remarkable feminist portrait of solitude and secrecy.

3. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
A masterclass in spare horror. Claustrophobic and beautifully funny, it is a book to stay up all night with. Constance and Merricat are doyennes of the American gothic for good reason – agoraphobic, paranoid and homicidal. The villagers suspect Constance of murder, but there is more to these strange sisters than meets the eye. Jackson herself was a mysterious and solitary figure, accused of being a communist witch by her neighbours and apparently revelling like Merricat in a truly filthy house. Inspirational.

4. New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani
A wounded soldier is found washed up in Trieste, with no memory and unable to speak. By relearning the Finnish language, he tries to “remember” a past life that may be fictional. With each word that he forms in his mouth, he strives towards reinhabiting a self that doesn’t belong to him at all. “In the innermost recesses of my unconscious I was plagued by the feeling that, within my brain, another brain was beating, buried alive.” Who is “Sampo”, really? An incredible identity thriller unfolds. Bleak, lovely, and as slow and painstaking at times as a grammar lesson.

5. Another Country by James Baldwin
A fierce portrait of rage, denial, violence and jealousy. A great mess of characters keeping things from one another. Baldwin describes the lover’s face brilliantly as “a mystery, containing, like all mysteries, the possibility of torment”. Yes, there’s the heavy secret of life in the 50s as a gay man, but there are also all the terrible things that these characters do and have done to one another. Sweat-drenched and unrelenting.

Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche in the 1996 adaptation of The English Patient.
Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche in the 1996 adaptation of The English Patient. Photograph: Alamy

6. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
The film is in a lot of ways better than the book, but Patrick Bateman is a wonderful creation. A slick Manhattan businessman obsessed with wealth by day; by night a serial killer who likes to dismember women while listening to Huey Lewis and the News. What do we believe of the things he tells us? Is he insane or just a fantasist? The descriptions of violence and consumerism are equally nauseating. It is disgusting, crass, irritating, absurd and brilliant.

7. The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
There’s a line in this book that sums up the themes of many of these books, and my own: “Between them lay a treacherous and complex journey. It was a very wide world”. The characters’ identities are fluid and untrustworthy. The “English” patient’s secret past is as a Hungarian count, who had a doomed love affair with a married woman. The book relies on Ondaatje’s prose, which is concentrated, thickly sweet and laden with significance.

8. Carol by Patricia Highsmith
Tom Ripley is Highsmith’s most notorious character, but I rejected him in favour of Carol’s, more subtle, double life. It’s a much better book. Highsmith published this under a pseudonym so as not to be labelled a “lesbian-book” writer and so, in writing it, was living a secret life of her own. The two women leave everything behind to embark on a tryst – but there is somebody following them. Gorgeous and thrilling, despite not being a genre page-turner. In fact, its languid pace is its charm.

9. The Lighthouse by Alison Moore
Moore’s works are spare and tender depictions of yearning. In this, her first novel, we follow a man named Futh through Germany, a man who may as well not exist at all. He ruminates and regrets. There’s not much in the way of a plot. But throughout is the scent of lost things: camphor, an extinguished match, peeled oranges, sun cream. Futh’s life is a secret to everyone he encounters, as he can’t make himself known. A slow-burning book that lingers.

10. The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark
Possibly the most dislikable protagonist I have ever read, and I love unlikable women. Lise shrieks and sobs her way through this short, grim book towards her own demise. She loudly proclaims that she is trying to find her “boyfriend”, but is really attempting to orchestrate her own murder. Frenetic, unhinged, creepy and brutish. Where is Lise from? What is the “illness” she refers to? Why does she act the way she does? The book does not explain the secrets, and I won’t try.

Eli Goldstone

The GuardianTramp

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