6 Books That I’m Still Struggling to Understand

Published on 12/14/2022

You’ve reached the final page, you’re closing the weary spine, and you’re already thinking of what score you’ll give it on Goodreads. But before you visit Goodreads, you make a quick detour to Wikipedia in the hopes of a detailed plot description.

Because what on earth did you just read?!

This isn’t to say that a confusing book is bad. Sometimes confusing books are literary masterpieces. Their confusing nature can be intentional to really put the reader through the wringer. It’s the confusing books that stay with me long after I’ve read the acknowledgements.

But I’ll still desperately search for an explanation online. I need to understand the 300+ pages that kept me up at night. And if I find a detailed plot summary, I’ll often end up wondering if I read the same novel as they did. Was mine even in the same language?

Here are the six most confusing books I’ve read. I still think about these books to this day and many are on my TBR list to revisit in the year to come.

1. Trust Exercise by Susan Choi

“In an American suburb in the early 1980s, students at a highly competitive performing arts high school struggle and thrive in a rarified bubble, ambitiously pursuing music, movement, Shakespeare, and, particularly, their acting classes. When within this striving "Brotherhood of the Arts," two freshmen, David and Sarah, fall headlong into love, their passion does not go unnoticed--or untoyed with--by anyone, especially not by their charismatic acting teacher, Mr. Kingsley.”

This was a novel constructed to confuse the reader. It’s split into three parts, each with a different narrator and yet linked to the same story. But that story changes in each part, as they all disagree with each other. There is no cohesive narration through this book, it centres on bias and storytelling.

I picked up this book because of the performing arts setting, as I’m a bit of a musical nerd. I never expected it to be such a mind-boggling novel. I was all set for a dramatic high school love story but I was severely mistaken.

Since finishing this book, I have read countless theories on what actually happened. The good thing is that they’re all as unsure as I am, which makes me feel a bit better. Even though I am so confused by this book, I loved it. The writing was powerful, and I can’t stop thinking about the puzzle of it. This book had such raw characters that leapt off the page and remained stuck in my throat.

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2. Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

“Looking at real estate isn't usually a life-or-death situation, but an apartment open house becomes just that when a failed bank robber bursts in and takes a group of strangers hostage. The captives include a recently retired couple who relentlessly hunt down fixer-uppers to avoid the painful truth that they can't fix up their own marriage. There's a wealthy banker who has been too busy making money to care about anyone else and a young couple who are about to have their first child but can't seem to agree on anything, from where they want to live to how they met in the first place. Add to the mix an eighty-seven-year-old woman who has lived long enough not to be afraid of someone waving a gun in her face, a flustered but still-ready-to-make-a-deal real estate agent, and a mystery man who has locked himself in the apartment's only bathroom, and you've got the worst group of hostages in the world.”

Okay, this book is intended to be a puzzle, and it was one that was clarified by the end of it. We were given the rare gift of resolution. I left this book understanding it more than any of the others on this list, but I certainly did not see the twist coming.

I included it on this list because further research showed how much I missed, and I’m eager to go back and read it knowing what I do now. Fredrik takes us on a rollercoaster of a story, and really plays upon our perception. This is a must-read for anyone who likes to be challenged.

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3. Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

“Ada begins her life in the south of Nigeria as a troubled baby and a source of deep concern to her family. Her parents, Saul and Saachi, successfully prayed her into existence, but as she grows into a volatile and splintered child, it becomes clear that something went terribly awry. When Ada comes of age and moves to America for college, the group of selves within her grows in power and agency. A traumatic assault leads to a crystallization of her alternate selves: Asụghara and Saint Vincent. As Ada fades into the background of her own mind and these selves--now protective, now hedonistic--move into control, Ada's life spirals in a dark and dangerous direction.”

A friend loaned me this novel and said it had swept her away. She’s usually a fan of darker, more intense works, so I went in ready for a journey. But I don’t think anything could have prepared me for Freshwater.

It’s been two years since I read this book, and the memory of it evokes a physical response. It is a book wrapped in trauma and pain, one that is difficult to read on countless occasions. It is narrated by Ada’s many selves, which often contradict each other and are overtly biased. This makes it rather confusing as the story isn’t linear and lives in extremes. I haven’t found many explanations for it online, but it has extremely high reviews.

Given that many events in the novel are described by non-humans essentially, it can be difficult to work out exactly what happens. But that’s also the beauty of the novel as it gives an outside perspective to things we take for granted.

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4. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

“Guy Montag is a fireman. His job is to destroy the most illegal of commodities, the printed book, along with the houses in which they are hidden. Montag never questions the destruction and ruin his actions produce, returning each day to his bland life and wife, Mildred, who spends all day with her television “family.” But when he meets an eccentric young neighbor, Clarisse, who introduces him to a past where people didn’t live in fear and to a present where one sees the world through the ideas in books instead of the mindless chatter of television, Montag begins to question everything he has ever known.”

Let me begin by acknowledging what an impressive book this is. I enjoyed reading it and I think it’s somehow even more relevant today than when it was written, but I also got really confused at moments. I definitely turned to Sparknotes afterwards to clarify some things.

Fahrenheit 451 is a must-read in my opinion. It’s short and easy to read, but the concept is quite complex. So really take your time with it and keep in mind it might be one you need to read a few times to fully grasp.

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5. The Road by Cormac McCarthy

“A father and his son walk alone through burned America. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind. It is cold enough to crack stones, and when the snow falls it is gray. The sky is dark. Their destination is the coast, although they don’t know what, if anything, awaits them there. They have nothing; just a pistol to defend themselves against the lawless bands that stalk the road, the clothes they are wearing, a cart of scavenged food—and each other.”

I read this novel for high school English. And I don’t know about you, but unfortunately I didn’t give the books on my syllabus a proper chance. I studied ‘Of Mice and Men’ and ‘The Great Gatsby’, both of which I adore and have read many times since, but at the time, I was uninterested. I think it was simply because I was forced to read them rather than choosing to.

I plan to reread ‘The Road’ in the coming months, and I have no doubt that I’ll enjoy it a lot more.

The confusing aspect of this book was how detached the narration was; we don’t even get names. That made it harder to connect to characters. I included it in this list namely because of how much symbolism I missed when reading it, which was later highlighted to me in Sparknotes when desperately studying for my exam.

I love post-apocalyptic novels that cover the complex issues of morality once society falls, and this book is exactly that.

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6. The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris

“Twenty-six-year-old editorial assistant Nella Rogers is tired of being the only Black employee at Wagner Books. Fed up with the isolation and microaggressions, she’s thrilled when Harlem-born and bred Hazel starts working in the cubicle beside hers. They’ve only just started comparing natural hair care regimens, though, when a string of uncomfortable events elevates Hazel to Office Darling, and Nella is left in the dust.

Then the notes begin to appear on Nella’s desk: LEAVE WAGNER. NOW.”

I think my confusion with this novel lay in the description I saw before reading it. It was compared to ‘The Devil Wears Prada’, which is one of my favourite films. I also love books set in the literary industry, as it always feels a little cheeky and meta. What I didn’t see before reading were the comparisons to ‘Get Out’, which makes a lot more sense than the first comparison. So if you’re a fan of thrillers like ‘Get Out’, definitely try this book.

With that little blip aside, it was an intelligent and dynamic book that I really enjoyed. But once finished, I still had a lot of unanswered questions. The majority of the plot happened in the final third, with a very slow build-up. This meant that the reveals were a bit rushed and not fully explained. But this could also be a deliberate choice to leave things up to the reader.

I definitely need to reread it now that I know what happens, as there were a lot of additional perspectives early on that didn’t make sense until further information was provided.

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When it comes to most of the confusing books on this list or in general, it’s a matter of how you go into that book. Did you get an accurate picture beforehand? Are you open to being surprised? Most confusing novels just need a second read, and that isn’t a bad thing. Some of the best books are ones you’re driven to read multiple times as you piece together exactly what happened. It’s like getting multiple books for the price of one.

What book did you find confusing, or do you agree/disagree with any of the novels on this list?

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