If you loved Emerald Fennell’s twisted tale of bright young things, you’ll find plenty of titles in the Booker Library that deal with dysfunctional aristocratic families, and interlopers with dark motives
If you fell in love with Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi and the lush locations of Emerald Fennell’s second film, or even if you’re still a little shell-shocked over those scenes, we’ve got some book recommendations that match the warped, gothic atmosphere of the movie perfectly – full of eccentric upper-class families, sumptuous settings, class divisions, love, lies and manipulative protagonists who can’t be trusted.
If you haven’t yet watched the film, Saltburn revolves around Oliver Quick, an apparently poor scholarship student at Oxford University, who ends up befriending wealthy, popular Felix Catton. Feeling sorry for Oliver, Felix invites him to spend the summer at his family’s lavish estate, Saltburn, where Oliver quickly finds favour with Felix’s parents, Sir James and Lady Elspeth, and his sister, Venetia. But as Oliver’s obsession with Felix grows, a series of tragic events leave the Catton family – and our sympathies for Oliver – in tatters.
If this psychological gothic thriller has left you hungry for more stories about upper-class university life, grand estates in the English countryside and deeply dysfunctional households, here are 10 books for you.
Rejected by her original publisher for being too nasty, Molly Keane’s 1981 Booker Prize-shortlisted Good Behaviour revolves around the life of Aroon St Charles, an outcast desperate for the approval of her family and society at large. Set in Ireland just after the First World War, the novel follows the St Charles family, Irish aristocrats with a penchant for unruly behaviour. Living in a crumbling estate called Temple Alice, the family’s unspoken motto is that appearances are everything and must be maintained at all costs. Beginning with a rabbit mousse murder, the story unravels across Aroon’s childhood and adolescence, as she deals with her cruel and selfish mother and neglectful father. Much like Oliver in Saltburn, Aroon is convinced she doesn’t fit in with upper-class society, and is bullied for her larger appearance and awkward demeanor. In the throes of unrequited infatuation, she hungers for love and acceptance but is instead dismissed and ignored. A dark comedy filled with secrets and tragedies, Good Behaviour uncovers what goes on beneath the seemingly perfect exterior of the very wealthy.
Longlisted for the Lost Man Booker in 2010, Iris Murdoch’s 13th novel was inspired by the plays of Shakespeare, particularly A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Using deceit and manipulation, biochemist Julius King attempts to end the marriage of two of his friends, all for the sake of a bet. Continuing on his path of malicious intent, he further aims to wreck the relationships of all those around him. Believing that human relationships can easily be broken and that their participants can always be substituted, his acts as a villainous puppet master leaves his friends’ lives in shambles. While Julius’s motives are unclear, his deception and trickery lead to numerous misunderstandings and betrayals, all without an ounce of remorse from Julius himself, much like the actions of Oliver in Saltburn. Juggling a complex cast of intertwining characters, Murdoch explores the contrast between good and evil.
Set throughout the 1980s, The Line of Beauty follows Nick Guest, who moves in with the Feddens, a wealthy family in Notting Hill, to begin his PhD in London. Similar to the way Oliver inserts himself into the Cattons’ opulent existence, Nick becomes an interloper into the lives of the rich and well connected. Living a luxurious lifestyle full of drugs, sex and expensive gifts, Nick takes full advantage of all the decadence that surrounds him. As the AIDS pandemic spreads and the political landscape fills with greed and scandal, Nick struggles with his identity and his quest for an aesthetically pleasing life. Winning the Man Booker Prize in 2004, The Line of Beauty intrigues readers with tales of love affairs, mystery and loss.
Taking inspiration from her own small-town upbringing and Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, Eileen focuses on Eileen Dunlop, an unstable and lonely young woman who yearns for a better life. Working at a juvenile correctional facility for teenage boys, Eileen strikes up a friendship with a glamorous psychologist, Rebecca Saint John, and finds herself embroiled in a plan that changes the course of her life. With its twisted, manipulative protagonist (see Oliver Quick), the novel portrays Eileen as deeply disturbed in the rawest of forms. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2016, and adapted for the big screen this year, Eileen is a creepy, psychological thriller that helped bring Moshfegh to a mainstream audience.
Published just three years after homosexuality was legalised in the UK, Francis King’s 1970 novel A Domestic Animal revolves around the unrequited love of Dick Thompson towards his handsome Italian lodger, Antonio Valli. Captivating everyone he meets, Antonio leaves Florence behind, along with his wife and two children, for a year of research at a university. He seeks admiration and reassurance from those around him – and Dick, a successful middle-aged novelist, is more than happy to oblige. As jealousy and lust take control, Dick finds himself drawn to Antonio’s new mistress, in a love triangle of sorts. Longlisted for the Lost Man Booker in 2010, A Domestic Animal tackles with the same theme of unrequited love which leaves Saltburn’s Oliver exasperated and possessive. Said to have been loosely based on King’s own experiences, the novel encapsulates the frustration and mania of one-sided love.
Shortlisted for the 2001 Booker Prize, Atonement centres around a 20th-century upper-class British family with a stately home not unlike Saltburn, and a story of jealousy, misunderstanding and tragedy. Thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis’ naive and selfish misinterpretation of events dramatically alters the lives of everyone involved. Written across three time periods, and with a devastating twist, Atonement deals with the loss of innocence, and the secrets and lies that can wreck an individual. Time magazine listed Atonement in its 100 greatest English-language novels since 1923, with a successful film adaptation released in 2007.
A disturbing and provocative thriller, My Sister, the Serial Killer shows us the dysfunctional life of nurse Korede and her sister, Ayoola, a beautiful sociopath who has killed three of her boyfriends. After disposing of the evidence and cleaning up the crime scene, Korede faces a crisis of conscience. But when Ayoola starts a flirtation with Korede’s crush at work, the doctor Tade, Korede battles with her feelings of anger and jealousy. Knowing how Ayoola’s past boyfriends have ended up, she is forced to pick a side. With dark humour and a sociopathic, remorseless protagonist (see Oliver Quick, again), the novel, which was longlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize, poses the question: how far would you go to protect your sibling?
The author of Great Granny Webster, Caroline Blackwood, is distinctly aware of the colourful goings-on within aristocratic families, coming as she does from the lineage of the wealthy Guinness dynasty. Partly influenced by her own childhood (Booker judge Philip Larkin felt the novel should not have been eligible for the prize as it was really, he believed, an autobiography), the book tells the story of three women through the eyes of a nameless teenage girl. It focuses on the matriarch of the family, cold-hearted and selfish Great Granny Webster, her ‘away with the fairies’ daughter, Grandmother Dunmartin, and the teenager’s promiscuous party-girl aunt, Lavinia. Seeking information about her deceased father, the girl gets more than she bargained for as interviews with various family members reveal past secrets and disturbing insights into the lives of the three women. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1977, this inter-generational gothic novel portrays an aristocratic and troubled family much like Saltburn’s eccentric Catton clan.
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2005, The Accidental focuses on members of the Smart family who are renting a holiday home in Norfolk when an uninvited guest, the beguiling 30-something Amber, crashes their seemingly normal lives claiming her car has broken down. Soon, and with no intention of leaving the family in peace, she causes havoc, prising open the cracks in the relationships between Michael and Eve, and their children, Magnus and Astrid, each harbouring secrets of their own. The narrative shifts between the perspectives of each of the Smarts as, much like Saltburn’s troubled house guest, Oliver, Amber proves to be the catalyst for the unraveling of a fragile family.
Sarah Waters’ gothic novel begins in 1947 when a country doctor, Faraday, is called to a rundown estate, Hundreds Hall, the home of the once-wealthy Ayres family. There, Mrs Ayres, her unmarried daughter Caroline and troubled son Roderick are struggling to return the estate to its former glory. As Faraday becomes a regular visitor to the house, strange and terrifying things begin to happen. The Ayres family – like the Cattons – are snobbish and emotionally damaged, while Faraday is haunted by his own working-class hangups. As critics have observed, this is a novel as much about social status as spooky goings-on. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2009 and adapted into a feature film in 2018, this chilling ghost story has a startling twist.