Illustration by Zelalem Waritu and Shahd Nigim.

Five Books to Read if You’re Looking For an Existential Crisis

Descriptions and reviews of five important novels you might not have had time to read yet, but spark great conversations.

Through its creative lens, fiction is capable of expressing complex issues. It allows audiences to understand and relate to topics foreign to them and can act as a medium to start much-needed conversations on social issues. While conversations on these topics are necessary, many “important” novels can be heavy and difficult to read, especially for a university student with little to no time and a plethora of mandatory readings to finish. We have put together a list of novels that can be great conversation starters. We hope you find them both insightful and enjoyable. Happy reading!
Butterfly Yellow
Thanhha Lai
Goodreads Rating: 3.89/5
Trigger Warnings: Rape, Graphic Violence, War
“So many decisions in a single simple sentence. Exhausting, this elaborate dance of words.”
In the wake of the Vietnam War, Hang tries to flee with her little brother Lihn to America, but at the airport, Lihn is taken from her and she is left stranded in war-torn Vietnam. Six years later, Hang escapes from Vietnam to Texas. There, she meets wannabe rodeo star LeeRoy who helps her find her brother. But when they reunite, Hang finds that Lihn has forgotten both her and Vietnam. Butterfly Yellow explores Hang’s determination to reconnect with her brother, and the unexpected help she finds in LeeRoy, weaving between the dark memories of her past and the hope of her present.
Butterfly Yellow explores many themes that are particularly relevant to students of a university that prides itself on its internationalism. As someone who has muddled through learning Arabic this semester, Emily found Hang’s description of the painstaking translation from Vietnamese to English deeply relatable. It is terrifying to imagine facing such a wide language barrier as an immigrant travelling alone through a country they barely know. Although the novel describes the darkness and violence of war and the struggles of immigrants, it is at its core about the friendship and family that can be built across cultural borders. Its heartfelt characters and relevant themes make it a worthwhile read.
It’s Not About the Burqa
Mariam Khan, Yasmin Abdel-Magied
Goodreads rating: 4.28/5
Trigger warnings: Abuse, Anxiety, Depression, Homophobia, Islamophobia, Racism, Suicidal Ideation
“I believe the role of the writer is to tell society what it pretends it does not know.”
It's Not About the Burqa is a collection of seventeen short fiction essays by different authors. They write about topics such as faith, religion and the hijab, and shed light on their lived experiences with marriage, identity and sex as modern Muslim women. They illustrate the realities of being female and being Muslim, and what it means when those two things come together.
Brilliantly crafted, often angry and thought-provoking, this book offers a unique perspective into the experience of Muslim women and explores how intersectionality affects their human experience. For all of those wishing to learn more about experiences different from their own, or alternatively find themselves relating to topics mentioned above, this book is a great option. The short essay format makes it incredibly easy to read between classes or during study breaks.
The Hate U Give
Angie Thomas
Goodreads Rating: 4.5/5
Trigger Warnings: Abusive Relationships, Child Abuse, Police Brutality, Death/Murder, Drug Use, Graphic Violence, Gun Violence
“You can destroy wood and brick, but you can't destroy a movement.”
The Hate U Give tells the story of a young Black revolutionary, Starr Carter, who grapples with the complexities of police brutality and racism after witnessing her childhood best friend get wrongfully shot by an officer. This forces her to compare the two worlds that she inhabits: that of her upper class suburban private school and the poor neighbourhood that she lives in. Khalil’s death becomes a national headline that sparks protests. Some call him a criminal, others protest against the injustice of his death, and everybody wants to know what really happened that night. The only person who holds that answer is Starr, but what she knows could change her community forever and even threaten her life.
As we continue to find ourselves fighting against the injustice to the global Black community, narratives from these communities are fundamental in understanding the gravity of the situation. A book that focuses on a young woman is a relatable way to see how individuals deal with such complex issues, offering a perspective that is often overlooked. “The Hate U Give” may already be a familiar title to some, but we think it is a worthwhile read for those who have not heard of it, or even a reread to those who have.
The Book Thief
Markus Zusak
Goodreads Rating: 4.38/5
Trigger Warnings: Anti-Semitism, Death, Depression, Physical Abuse, Suicide, War
“I am haunted by humans.”
Set in Nazi Germany, The Book Thief is a story told from the perspective of Death. It follows a nine year old girl named Liesel Meminger who, after stumbling upon a book, learns the power of words with the help of her foster father. She begins stealing books from book burnings and even the private library of an unlikely friend. However, when her foster family hides a Jew in their basement, Liesel’s world is suddenly turned upside down as she forcefully faces the realities of war, and looks for comfort within the pages.
If you have been looking to get into historical fiction, but were put off by the serious, brooding nature of these books, The Book Thief is a good place to start. It is not your typical World War II narrative because its unique narrator, Death, and unconventionally youthful protagonists, make it a refreshing read. Death’s unique voice gives readers a bird’s-eye view into the world Liesel inhabits, allowing them to distance themselves from the narrative and truly appreciate it. Additionally, the youth of the characters gives the story an innocence that helps you digest the heavy themes.
The Handmaid's Tale
Margaret Atwood
Goodreads rating: 4.34/5
Trigger warnings: Death, Family Separation, Sexual Violence, Hanging, Abuse
"I wait. I compose myself. My self is a thing I must now compose, as one composes a speech. What I must present is a made thing, not something born."
Atwood throws us into the dystopian, Christian, fundamentalist Republic of Gilead. We follow ‘Offred’, a ‘handmaid’ living in this oppressive nation, who is used to forcibly bear children for the ruling class of Gilead. The book is a first person narrative told from Offred's perspective as she details her current misery and reflects upon the disastrous chain of events that led to the formation of the Republic. She must navigate an increasingly suffocating world, her love for the commander's chauffeur, Nick, and find a way to get pregnant before she is shipped off to the ‘wastelands’.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” is a powerful, thought-provoking exploration of a society that has totalitarian control of women’s bodies. The book defies its genre by presenting its narrative as a slice-of-life story, except the life we are viewing is a terrifying one. Unlike most dystopian novels of the modern day, our main character isn’t a plucky, quirky teenage girl that overthrows the government because of her specialness. Instead, she offers her own kind of quiet resistance through beautiful narratives, and pushes back against society through internal monologues.
We hope that this list of novels, once again, will provide great conversation starters to start talking about complex issues.
Sara Vuksanovic, Malak Elmallah and Emily Yoo are Book and Movie Columnists. Email them at
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