Top 10 books about the unknowable | Peter Ho Davies

From William Shakespeare to WG Sebald, these books are written less to dispel mystery than to accept it

Early in every writer’s apprenticeship we’re likely to encounter the advice to “write what you know”. It’s a cliche, but like most, one with a kernel of truth, nodding as it does to the authority implicit in author and reminding us of our contract with readers; they give us their attention in return for some command, on our part, over our subject. One limitation of “write what you know”, however, is the tendency to interpret what we know narrowly as what we’ve experienced, rather than what we’ve learned or researched. But a little further along in our writing education, we’re liable to encounter a refinement of the advice, that “we write to know”, reflecting every writer’s intuition that writing is a mode of thinking, of inquiry, and that we often recognise we’ve finished revising a story when we finally understand it or know it.

My new novel, A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself, features a writer (and teacher of writing) as a protagonist, a character very familiar with these distinctions, but also in his personal life newly confronting the limitations of what any of us can know, in the form of uncertain prenatal test results.

If “write what you know” implies we begin from knowledge, and “write to know” suggests we write towards it, my protagonist (and I) are glimpsing a third mode of writing in which we address the unknowable. Chekhov’s dictum – “The role of the artist is to ask questions, not answer them” – might apply here, but sometimes that role goes further, to include the asking of unanswerable questions and the dramatization of the state of uncertainty that results. This might seem to break that contract with the reader noted above, but such works rather that frustrating readers might seek to offer them some company or even solace in facing uncertainty in their own lives (something, of course, which has seemed ever more urgent and widespread in the last year).

Here then are 10 books that each in their various ways face the unknown, less to dispel mystery than to accept it. The kind of books both I (and my character) cherish.

1. 10:04 by Ben Lerner
Already a classic of the new mode of autofiction, Lerner’s by turns playful and mournful novel filters the many uncertainties of its protagonist (his health, his prospective fatherhood, the future), through the uncertainties of the form. The fact that the book’s protagonist is a writer who shares the same name as his author alerts us to the possibility that this might be fact or fiction and ensures that the flickering uncertainties of the character’s life ramify for the reader.

2. The Friend by Sigrid Nunez
Another book that seems to hover in the uncertain space between memoir and fiction. In this case the formal uncertainty reflects on, most obviously, the unknowability of a friend’s suicide, but also more subtly on the status of the friendship itself and the essential unknowability of even those we love – whether human or animal (in the form of a great dane called Apollo).

3. Trust Exercise by Susan Choi
Less auto- than meta-fiction, perhaps, Choi offers competing versions of a teenage trauma to reflect on the uncertainties of storytelling, of memory, and the gaps between competing points of view in a charged #MeToo context.

4. When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro
Many writers – Paul Auster, Roberto Bolaño, Thomas Pynchon – have drawn on the tropes of the detective novel to probe the unknown and subvert the idea of a solution to every mystery. But Ishiguro’s take on the gentleman detective (while not as well known as his reimagining of the below-stairs novel in The Remains of the Day) gets my vote for its phantasmagoric re-imagining of 1930s Shanghai.

Jorge Luis Borges at home in Buenos Aires in 1981.
Jorge Luis Borges at home in Buenos Aires in 1981. Photograph: Eduardo Di Baia/AP

5. Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges
The South American master of paradox had his own way with detective fiction in stories such as Death and the Compass but his flair for the unknowable may be most famously exemplified by The Library of Babel, which imagines a vast collection of all possible books – most of them nonsensical or incomprehensible – in which knowledge is lost. My personal favourite, though, is the last story in this famous collection, The South, a seemingly more conventional story poised on the knife edge of possibility (appropriately since it ends in a duel). Borges described it as “perhaps my best story” and noted cryptically “it can be read as a direct narrative of novelistic events, and also in another way”.

6. Evening’s Empire by Zachary Lazar
True crime, like detective fiction, often promises to dispel mystery, but can sometimes only reveal its depths. Lazar’s book is a pensive, mournful investigation into his own father’s murder at the hands of the mob when the author was a child, complete with what he describes as “conjurings” – imagined scenes that fill the gaps the facts leave behind, while simultaneously reminding us of their absence.

7. Writing to Save a Life by John Edgar Wideman
Another book that asks how to write nonfiction when the facts are unknown, and another centred on a father and son. But this is a book unlike any other, by a doyen of African American writers. Wideman offers a deeply personal inquiry into the life and death of Louis Till – father of Emmett Till, the victim of the notorious lynching in 1955 – who was himself executed by the US army during the second world war. Wideman stares down the gaps in the military court records, reading and writing between the lines to reveal the fatal uncertainties of black life.

8. The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
Alternate or counter-factual history is a genre designed to plumb the unknown and several writers (Philip K Dick in The Man in the High Castle, notably) have employed the form to provocative effect. Roth’s version, which imagines a fascist 1930s US under a President Charles Lindbergh seemed an allegory of the Bush years on its initial publication, and more latterly of the Trump regime, suggesting how such works always ask us to suspend our disbelief between the known and the unknown, the now and the unthen.

9. The Rings of Saturn by WG Sebald
A walk though the Suffolk countryside becomes the occasion for a series of spiralling, digressions part fact, part fiction – a book of circles without centre. As Sebald said himself: “Fiction writing, which does not acknowledge the uncertainty of the narrator himself, is a form of imposture which I find very, very difficult to take.”

10. Hamlet by William Shakespeare
This list wouldn’t be complete without the OG of uncertainty. “To be or not to be” may be our most famous expression of ambivalence, but it’s whether “to believe or not believe” his father’s ghost that initiates Hamlet’s drama, and whether “to act or not to act” in his revenge that underpins its moral stakes. Hamlet’s gnawing dilemma is that he can’t know the rightness or otherwise of his actions. The result is a play about the unknowability of our own souls.

  • A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself by Peter Ho Davies is published by Hodder & Stoughton. To order a copy, go to

Peter Ho Davies

The GuardianTramp

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