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8 Books about dark family secrets

Literature is full of dark family secrets, with one little lie or mistake eating up the entire family from the inside, sometimes destroying whole generations. Here’s a list of books that will have you guessing at every twist and turn.

The Wasp Factory, by Iain Banks

Frank is a teenage boy living on a remote island with his drunk father. His elder brother has escaped from a mental health facility, and Frank is nervously awaiting his return. Everyone in the family harbours shocking secrets, but it’s the one held by Frank’s father that will turn his whole identity upside down.

The Wasp Factory is the first novel by Scottish writer Iain Banks, published in 1984. Before its publication, Banks had written several science fiction novels that had not been accepted by the editors. Banks decided to try a more mainstream novel in the hopes that it would be more readily accepted, and wrote about a psychopathic teenager living on a remote Scottish island. According to Banks, this allowed him to treat the story as something resembling science fiction – the island could be envisaged as a planet, and Frank, the protagonist, almost as an alien.

We have always lived in the castle, by Shirley Jackson

In this gothic novel, the remnants of the Blackwood family live in a big house, ostracized by the local community following the death of the parents, aunt, and brother of Merricat and Constance Blackwood. The locals believe that Constance committed the murders and now she lives in complete isolation.

But through the ramblings of their uncle, Merricat and Constance begin to put together the family secrets of the past ‒ and the truth behind the murders.

The widow, by Fiona Barton

Jean Taylor stuck by her husband when he was accused of a terrible crime. But now that he’s dead, she can finally tell her side of the story.

But when is a family secret ever that straightforward? Jean has secrets of her own, and she’ll keep them hidden no matter the cost.

The blind assassin, by Margaret Atwood

This Booker Prize winner focuses on sisters Iris and Laura as Iris looks back on Laura’s suicide.

A novel-within-the-novel ‒ perhaps written by Laura before her death ‒ sheds surprising light on the sisters’ relationship and how a charismatic (and possibly fictional) man affected their lives.

The suspicions of Mr. Whicher, by Kate Summerscale

This book is based on the real-life Victorian murder that inspired contemporary writers Wilkie Collins and Arthur Conan Doyle.

When a child is murdered in his family home, detective Mr. Whicher arrives to investigate. The lack of a break-in suggests that one of the household members is to blame, but the incompetence of local police has destroyed almost all the evidence. Whicher must unveil some dark family secrets if he has any hope of bringing the murderer to justice.

We are all completely beside ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler

Everything changed for Rosemary Cooke when her sister vanished. Years later, her brother ran away too.

Only now, as an adult, does Rosemary begin to question both events and lift the veil of silence that has settled on her devastated parents ever since. Worst of all, she must come to accept the fact that she might be partially responsible for all the grief that has fallen on the family.

Help for the haunted, by John Searles

Sylvie Mason is accustomed to her parents being called out at all times of the night ‒ their unusual job is to help «haunted souls» find peace. But this time, they’re called out by Sylvie’s errant older sister, Rose, and they are killed.

A year later, Sylvie is living with Rose and trying to uncover the truth of her parents’ occupation and their death. This strange novel is a blend of paranormal mystery, crime, and coming-of-age, with some dark family secrets at the heart of it.

The dinner, by Herman Koch

Two brothers and their wives meet over dinner to discuss a horrible crime committed jointly by their sons. They were caught on CCTV and have yet to be identified by police ‒ but their parents recognized them immediately.

Over the course of the meal, memories and family secrets are brought out and savored, and the reader is left wondering who is really to blame for the crime ‒ the children or the parents?

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