From coming-out stories to historical same-sex romances to tales of queer parenthood, we’ve compiled a fabulous selection of fiction celebrating a diverse range of LGBTQ+ experiences
It’s noteworthy that for the past four years The Booker Prize has been awarded to novels whose central characters are lesbian, gay, bisexual or non-binary. Amongst the diverse range of individuals portrayed in Bernardine Evaristo’s polyphonic Girl, Woman, Other a lesbian socialist playwright and a popular non-binary blogger feature prominently. The eponymous Scottish boy in Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain is a sensitive and effeminate adolescent described as ‘no right’ by his neighbours. In Damon Galgut’s The Promise, winner of the 2021 prize, Amor increasingly distances herself from her toxic family while engaging in romantic relationships with women and working with AIDS patients. Amongst his numerous missions, the recently deceased male hero and self-declared ‘slut’ in Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, winner of last year’s Booker, seeks to reconnect with his lover, DD, who is a politician’s closeted son.
It’s a coincidence that all of these recent trophy-snatching novels happen to include queer characters, but it also reflects a welcome burgeoning visibility of LGBTQ+ experiences in new fiction. Sometimes these characters’ sexualities are integral to the plot, as they face both direct and institutionalised homophobia. Sometimes it’s simply another facet of their identity. Some characters proudly declare their sexuality while others keep it an uncomfortable secret. From the virtuous to the villainous, these nuanced characters show the complexity and multiplicity of identity.
I’ve searched through the Booker archives to select a range of books that testify to the range of these experiences. From recently listed titles to older fiction, the novels in this list highlight compelling and unique representations of the struggle for equality and honest expressions of selfhood, capturing a wide spectrum of queer life.
In past centuries, the stigma which accompanied gay relationships meant that these stories weren’t often recorded in historical accounts or literature. Yet there must have been instances when men fell in love and settled down together. So it’s refreshing when novels reimagine a past that fills the gaps in history. In Days Without End, Thomas McNulty survives the Irish famine by travelling to the US to fight in the Indian Wars and American Civil War. Along the way he falls in love with handsome soldier John Cole. Through their experiences and the found family they form, the story dynamically explores issues around gender and sexuality. While valiantly fighting in battle this male couple show how their homosexuality and qualities traditionally coded as feminine are entirely natural. Thomas reflects that they’re ‘Just a thing that’s in you and you can’t gainsay’. In addition to being longlisted for the 2017 Booker, Sebastian Barry’s much celebrated novel also won the Costa Book Award and the Walter Scott Prize.
Not only was the 2019 Booker Prize significant for the judges’ controversial decisions to jointly award the prize, Bernardine Evaristo was also the first woman with Black heritage to win. Her enthralling novel shuttles between the stories of 12 central characters, most of whom are women, Black and British. Often when the experiences of Black and queer individuals are included in British fiction they bear the burden of representing whole communities of diverse individuals. Evaristo’s novel brilliantly shows that though identity labels may be a significant part of her characters’ lives, they do not define them. It demonstrates that there is no one singular truth about these complex individuals coming of age in the wake of feminism, Black consciousness and/or queer rights. There’s an immense pleasure in following their everyday reality and discovering how their stories are ingeniously linked together.
Could there be a more alluring metaphor for the precarious relationship between politics and homosexuality in 1980s Britain than the jaw-dropping party scene in The Line of Beauty where Nick, the story’s gay protagonist who is high on coke, invites Margaret Thatcher to dance and she accepts? It’s a mesmerising moment in a novel filled with many more stunning observational set pieces that follow middle-class Nick’s journey as he becomes part of the furniture within a privileged Tory family’s home. However, with the growing AIDS crisis and scandals within the Conservative Party looming, this arrangement becomes increasingly fraught and ready to explode. Alongside dramatic personal events, a more subtle tension builds over the course of the story as art is enslaved by money and politics. Hollinghurst’s 2004 Booker winner deftly explores the complexities of Nick’s ambition, romances and gay life.
In this 2015 Booker-winning novel, Marlon James uses several distinct narrators to fictionalise one of the most famous incidents in Jamaican history: the 1976 assault upon Bob Marley’s house which resulted in the reggae legend, his wife and his manager being shot by unknown gunmen. Though the book is famous for its detailed exploration of this scandalous attack and the politics surrounding it, it’s less widely discussed that two of its male narrators actively have sex with other men. Gangster Weeper and hit man John-John K differently wrestle with their own sense of masculinity within a homophobic culture while steeped in their violent professions. These characters challenge stereotypical notions of gay men and emerge as highly compelling individuals who have alternative ways of inhabiting their sexuality. Interestingly, in the last sentence of Marlon James’ acknowledgements at the end of the book, he warns his mother away from reading the fourth part of this novel which contains some very graphic sexual content.
It was never going to be easy for a trans girl in 1960s Ireland whose father is a priest and foster mother is an alcoholic to realise her dreams of finding a stable home, the love of a good man and being able to live as her authentic self. Instead Patrick ‘Pussy’ Braden embarks on a quest to find her birth mother while engaging in precarious relationships and prostitution ultimately becoming Ireland’s most feared suspected terrorist in a fabulous ball gown. Shortlisted for the Booker in 1998, McCabe’s novel immerses us in Pussy’s wickedly irreverent perspective as she relates the dramatic events of her life thus far. This is a very original take on the Troubles that’s full of charm, wit and heartache. McCabe also adapted his novel for the screen in a 2005 movie directed by Neil Jordan and starring Cillian Murphy, who is given the less problematic name ‘Kitten’ in the film.
Though Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things won the Booker in 1997, her fans needed to wait 20 years for her next novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Longlisted for the prize in 2017, this book is a long, intricately layered, surprising and wondrous depiction of a society in transition. At the beginning of the story we’re introduced to Anjum, who is born with both male and female genitals. She is raised as a boy and leaves her family in adolescence to live as a woman in a collective called ‘The House of Dreams’, made up of trans and intersex people. Not only does this provide her an important support network when her family brand her a disgrace, but she demonstrates her nurturing instinct by adopting an abandoned child. This voluminous novel expands to encompass many tales of individuals displaced by social and political conflicts. Though frank in its depiction of heart-wrenching turmoil, it’s moreover a story of love, chosen family, community, the power of protest and defiant beauty.
Amidst a profusion of dystopian fiction published in recent years, debut novel The Chimes stands out as exceptionally inventive in how it combines the author’s background in music to form an original vision of a totalitarian future. The written word is outlawed and the minds of ordinary citizens are wiped clean using a daily music ritual. Set in a recognisable but distorted version of London at some point after a catastrophic event, Smaill’s novel tells the story of Simon, a young man who’s been set a vague mission by his mother to locate a woman who runs a market stall. In his journey uncovering the sinister forces which control the population’s memory, he forms a romantic relationship with gang leader Lucien. Their tender same-sex desire is handled with great care in this intriguing tale which prompts readers to see and hear the world differently. New Zealand author Anna Smaill wasn’t aware that her book had been submitted to the Booker, so was delightfully surprised to discover it had been longlisted for the prize in 2015.
Debut novel Shuggie Bain was published and won the Booker in 2020 amidst the height of the Covid pandemic. As such, instead of being able to engage in elaborate festivities when the novel was longlisted, author Douglas Stuart and his husband were in lockdown. They famously celebrated the book’s success by heating a frozen pizza and digging out a dusty old bottle of champagne from the fridge. It was a cosy victory for this book which was a decade in the making. It draws heavily upon Stuart’s own childhood, growing up in Glasgow among a working-class community where masculine standards meant boys were discouraged from showing their emotions. Shug has a budding awareness of his homosexuality which he feels compelled to repress while struggling to care for his alcoholic mother. However, he can’t hide his true self forever. It’s impressive that a tale so harrowing can also contain so much warmth, humour and humanity.
Amidst the tragedy of the AIDS epidemic, the resulting illness and death of many gay men forced their families to face facts about their lives which they’d been tactfully avoiding or denying. The Blackwater Lightship fictionally dramatises one such conflict in the 1990s when Declan confesses to his sister Helen that he’s dying from the disease. He entreats her to inform their mother so he can move from the hospital to his grandmother’s seaside house to live out his remaining days with his family and friends. Amidst this uneasy reunion to deal with Declan’s health crisis, painful memories must be acknowledged and divisions settled. It’s a story which plays out with all the grace and profundity of a Chekhovian drama. Tóibín’s novel, which was shortlisted for the 1999 Booker, was subsequently made into a film starring Angela Lansbury and, more recently, into a highly regarded stage play.
For many years Sophie Ward has worked as a fabulous actress and this debut, longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize, proved her to be one of literature’s most innovative new writers. Just as many people’s sexual identity doesn’t fit into neat categories, this highly inventive book can’t be classified as belonging to any one genre. It’s a tender family story which takes place over multiple decades following a lesbian couple who have a child. It delves into the specific complexities involved with queer parenthood, but also how these characters face challenges that have nothing to do with their sexuality. In addition to exploring a family’s personal life, this conceptual novel considers the meaning of consciousness, the shape of reality and the limits of perception. Told through a series of interlinked tales that focus on a range of different points of view, it veers from the perspective of an ant to considering the limits of outer space. It’s not often that such a thought-provoking book also contains so much heart.
Sarah Waters brilliantly combined research about 19th century working-class British life with elements from the genre of ‘sensation’ fiction to write a highly original historical crime novel and lesbian romance. Shortlisted for the 2002 Booker, this story follows Sue, an orphan raised by thieves, and Maud, an heiress living in a secluded country house who becomes the target of these thieves’ dastardly scheme. It’s a riveting and sexy yarn that’s famous for its intricate plot containing many unexpected twists and turns. Even though the story is frequently funny and delightful, there’s also a serious underlying message about feminism and reclaiming female sexuality in a misogynistic Victorian setting. The book’s title refers to an archaic term for a petty thief, but it also reflects the story’s erotic themes. The novel has been adapted for both the stage and small screen, but it was also radically reimagined and transported to 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea in the 2017 film The Handmaiden.
The enduring classic Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus can be interpreted in many different ways, but its themes of alienation and loneliness strongly resonate with the queer community. There have been many re-imaginings of Mary Shelley’s novel that play upon issues to do with sexuality – not least of all the great rite of passage flick The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Winterson’s inventive novel Frankissstein, which was longlisted for the 2019 Booker, presents a dual narrative which switches between historical sections where Mary Shelley is in the process of writing her famous first novel and a near future where a non-binary individual named Ry Shelley engages in a complicated romantic relationship with secretive scientist Professor Stein. It’s immensely fun following the imaginative breadth of these twin tales whose themes combine to give a new view on the notorious fictional monster, the recurrence of prejudice over time and heteronormative ideology.