The bones of many a novel have been built not only on plot but on place and time: the grit of ‘70s New York, the relentless silence of deepest space, the terrible romance of World War II. There’s something to be said for a distinct setting that subtly drives a story and inspires the characters to act. But in the case of the five novels highlighted below, we’re not speaking of a glittering city or an imminent disaster that pushes a protagonist to physically move; rather, we’ve come to sing the praises of that underlying but steady player we investment writers visit on a daily basis: the macroeconomic climate.
Below are five best-selling novels you may not realise are about the economy. Rich and varied, the stories span centuries (from the 17th to the futuristic 21st), but all revolve around one truth: when the economy breaks – or booms – the strong-willed spring to action, for better or for worse.
1. The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood.
Famed Canadian author Atwood’s 2015 novel follows her regularly scheduled programming of writing about a dystopian North America while at the same time veering wildly off course. The story centres around Stan and Charmaine, a couple in their 30s who have witnessed life as they know it end via economic Armageddon in the American northeast. The story drives home just how desperate the situation is by describing the couple’s immobility: while it’s known that things are not as dire on the west coast, it’s impossible to get there as they have no money for petrol – a horrible irony, as they literally live in a working vehicle. When Charmaine learns of the Positron Project, a controversial social experiment that promises a beautiful suburban home, stable career and all of life’s basic needs – for the small price of spending every other month of your life as an inmate in one of the US’s notorious for-profit prisons – she immediately wants in. The story explores the lengths a person is willing to go to for the simple securities that were once taken for granted. But after a year in Positron…well, things get weird. And we don’t just mean for Stan and Charmaine – but for Atwood’s readers as well.
2. Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn.
A massive hit from pretty much the moment it was released, the whiplash-fast action of this 2012 thriller might have led readers to miss the catalyst for everyone’s bad behaviour: the 2008 recession, which decimated the American job market and drove protagonist Nick from his high-profile job as a writer at a trendy NYC magazine back to the glamour-less confines of his Missouri hometown. When his wife, Amy, goes missing shortly thereafter, the investigation soon brings to light just how dissatisfied she was with losing the luxe life their pre-credit-crunch success afforded her. Though there may be some other issues involved (psychopathy, perhaps?), the ordeal of transforming from a ‘have’ to a ‘have-not’ breeds the absolute worst in Flynn’s central characters.
3. A Week in December, by Sebastian Faulks.
Sebastian Faulks’ look at life in contemporary London takes place during a very specific moment in time. The eponymous week in December is in the year 2007, just before the credit crunch hit and economies crashed in the UK and beyond. Despite being one of only two novels on our list with a title that directly references the building fiscal bedlam, the story is in many ways the most subtle: it’s a snapshot of life on the brink, coloured by characters who don’t know the world’s about to change. The one exception within December’s ensemble cast is an acidic hedge-fund manager. He takes an active role in breaking the banks when he identifies a lucrative loophole that will prompt the collapse of a major financial institution, to his personal advantage.
4. Room, by Emma Donoghue.
Another novel set against the most recent global recession, Room might just be the last book you’d expect to find on a list of financial fiction; after all, the narrator of the story is still years away from learning his times tables. Little Jack lives in his own universe called Room, where he reigns with his mother, Ma. Happy in the small space he calls his own, he is blissfully unaware of the truth of Room: that it is actually a small, underground bunker where he and Ma are captives of an abductor who kidnapped Ma years before. Afforded everything she needs to survive (along with some extras, like a TV), Ma soon demonstrates that being torn from a normal life as a teenager failed to hamper her insight and understanding of the world. When their captor confides in her that he’s lost his job as a result of the recession, her understanding of the economic climate allows her to clearly see the danger they are in. (It’s an interesting and frustrating moment when she tries to explain ‘foreclosure’ to her 5-year-old son.) With their abductor no longer able to afford his mortgage payments (let alone his, ahem, ‘dependents’), Ma knows the time on their doomsday clock has begun to slip away…and that survival has become a dire case of ‘now or never’.
5. Tulip Fever, by Deborah Moggach
Tulip Fever is your typical tale of star-crossed lovers set against a decidedly atypical backdrop for the genre: the bizarre phenomenon of Tulip Mania, which alighted on Holland in the 1630s and is widely considered the first financial bubble. The story centres around young Amsterdam wife Sophia, who falls in love with Jan, the artist her elderly husband hires to paint her portrait (rather ill-conceived on his part). Sophia soon begins an affair with the more age-appropriate of the two, and they devise a plan to be together, which is dependent on Jan shedding his starving-artist status via getting rich off the booming tulip market. The naivety of his strategy is not all that far-fetched given what we know of the tulip bubble: the insanity surrounding the buying and selling was driven by desire rather than intrinsic value – put simply, people wanted the tulips because they were pretty. As is inevitable in stories such as this, Jan gets the timing completely wrong – and Moggach does a nice job of incorporating some mania mythology involving the prized Semper Augustus, an onion and a drunkard.
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