15 Most Underrated Novels of All Time

There’s something inherently magical about the world of literature. It’s a realm where writers use mere words to craft universes, breathe life into characters, and awaken emotions within the reader. Yet, in the vast expanse of books that the world has to offer, some novels, despite their literary brilliance, never get the attention or adulation they so richly deserve.

While the classics and bestsellers grab all the limelight, the underrated gems languish on dusty shelves, eagerly awaiting the right reader to come along. The stories they contain could offer new perspectives, take you on journeys through unexplored worlds, or even change your life.

Whether you are a casual reader looking to expand your literary horizons or a seasoned bibliophile in search of a diamond in the rough, this list of most underrated novels of all time will introduce you to works that have, sadly, not received the recognition they merit.

1. “Stoner” by John Williams

“Stoner,” penned by John Williams in 1965, is a novel that has only recently begun to receive the attention it deserves. At its core, this is a story of a life not lived—a tale of a man who endures a series of disappointments and setbacks but still finds beauty in the everyday.

While the book initially struggled to find its audience, it has since garnered a cult following. The protagonist, William Stoner, is an everyman character whose life story provokes deep thought about the nature of existence, personal choices, and what it means to live a ‘good life’.

2. “Neverwhere” by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman’s “Neverwhere” was initially overshadowed by his more famous works like “American Gods.” This dark urban fantasy novel takes you on a journey through a hidden, grimy London full of magic and peril, often referred to as ‘London Below’.

Though not as widely discussed as some of his other books, “Neverwhere” offers a thrilling ride through an intricately imagined world. Its intricate plot and vivid characters make it a must-read, particularly for fans of urban fantasy. For those unacquainted with Gaiman, this is an excellent entry point into his oeuvre.

3. “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” by Shirley Jackson

Best known for her short story “The Lottery,” Shirley Jackson is a master of horror and psychological suspense. “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” is a bewitching tale of isolation, paranoia, and familial bonds, told through the eyes of an unreliable narrator.

Though the novel is now considered a seminal work in its genre, it has been vastly underrated. Its atmospheric tension and unsettling story invite the reader into a world they won’t easily forget. This is a perfect read for anyone looking to explore the depths of human psychology.

4. “The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov

“The Master and Margarita,” written by Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov, is often overshadowed by other Russian classics like “War and Peace” and “Crime and Punishment.” Yet, this satirical novel, which presents a magical realist view of Moscow, is an important work in its own right.

Despite censorship and limited early publication, the novel has grown in stature over the years. It delves into the themes of love, power, and the battle between good and evil. For anyone interested in Russian literature beyond the usual suspects, this is a must-read.

5. “Geek Love” by Katherine Dunn

“Geek Love,” published in 1989 by Katherine Dunn, is a unique tale that explores the lives of a family of circus performers. Through the lens of the ‘freak show,’ the novel delves into complex themes of identity, normality, and the human condition.

Though not for the faint of heart, this dark and sometimes disturbing story pushes boundaries in narrative fiction. It may not have achieved mainstream success, but it has been a critical darling and amassed a loyal following. For readers unafraid to venture into the odd and unsettling, “Geek Love” is an excellent choice.

6. “Kindred” by Octavia Butler

Octavia Butler’s “Kindred” is a science fiction novel that defies simple categorisation. While it delves into themes of slavery and racial discrimination, the book is often overlooked in discussions of classic science fiction works.

Using time travel as a plot device, “Kindred” drags its modern-day protagonist back to the pre-Civil War South. The book is a riveting exploration of history, racism, and the complexities of human relationships. For anyone interested in socially conscious science fiction, this book is an unmissable read.

7. “The Sea, The Sea” by Iris Murdoch

Iris Murdoch’s “The Sea, The Sea” won the Booker Prize in 1978 but still remains relatively unknown compared to other award winners. It’s a rich tapestry of human emotions, love, obsession, and the passage of time, all set against the backdrop of the sea.

The narrative style and intricate character development make it a challenging but rewarding read. While it may be dense, its themes and Murdoch’s skilful storytelling make it worth the effort. This book is perfect for those seeking a more demanding, yet deeply gratifying, literary experience.

8. “The Painted Bird” by Jerzy Kosinski

Jerzy Kosinski’s “The Painted Bird” is a harrowing narrative set during World War II, exploring the brutality and dehumanisation faced by a young boy wandering through Eastern Europe. While the book has been subject to controversy, its impact is undeniable.

Though it hasn’t achieved the same notoriety as other novels set during this period, its vivid storytelling and unsettling themes make it a significant work. For those interested in historical fiction that doesn’t shy away from difficult topics, this is a compelling read.

9. “Death with Interruptions” by José Saramago

Nobel Prize winner José Saramago’s “Death with Interruptions” combines his unique writing style with an engaging premise: What if death suddenly stopped? While this book has been overshadowed by his other works like “Blindness,” it deserves its own spotlight.

This philosophical narrative poses existential questions while maintaining a sardonic humour throughout. It’s a thought-provoking read that tackles profound subjects without becoming overly burdensome. For those who appreciate intellectual stimulation along with storytelling, this book is a hidden treasure.

10. “The Book of Disquiet” by Fernando Pessoa

Comprised of various fragments, “The Book of Disquiet” by Fernando Pessoa is not a conventional novel. This might explain why it remains largely overlooked, despite being a masterful meditation on the human condition.

The text offers a profound exploration of existential angst, solitude, and the intricacies of the mind. Though not an easy read, its poetic language and philosophical insights make it a unique literary experience. For those willing to venture beyond traditional narrative structures, this is a compelling choice.

11. “The Secret History” by Donna Tartt

Despite the success of Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch,” her debut novel “The Secret History” is frequently underestimated. This thriller, centred around a group of classics students at a small Vermont college, is a dense exploration of moral ambiguity and intellectual vanity.

Its nuanced character development and intricate plot make it a standout work, even if it isn’t as widely celebrated as it should be. For readers interested in thrillers that offer more than just suspense, this book provides a rich, thought-provoking experience.

12. “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison

While “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison is considered a classic in American literature, it is often overshadowed by other works tackling racial issues. The book offers a deep exploration of individual identity against the backdrop of collective racial identity.

The novel’s lyrical prose and compelling narrative make it an essential read for anyone interested in American literature or social issues. Its themes remain relevant today, providing a timeless commentary on race, identity, and the human condition.

13. “If on a winter’s night a traveler” by Italo Calvino

Italo Calvino’s “If on a winter’s night a traveler” is an avant-garde work that employs an unconventional narrative style. The book plays with the concept of storytelling itself, incorporating multiple stories within its overarching plot.

While this may seem like a literary gimmick, the book is a profound exploration of the reader’s relationship with the text. It challenges the conventions of storytelling and narrative structure, making it an intriguing read for those interested in experimental literature.

14. “Blood Meridian” by Cormac McCarthy

While Cormac McCarthy has received widespread acclaim for books like “The Road,” his work “Blood Meridian” is often overlooked. This dark, violent novel explores the depths of human depravity against the backdrop of the American West.

Though not a mainstream success, “Blood Meridian” has been hailed by critics as one of the greatest American novels. Its graphic violence and dense prose may not be for everyone, but those willing to engage with its themes will find it a rewarding read.

15. “Wise Blood” by Flannery O’Connor

Southern Gothic writer Flannery O’Connor’s “Wise Blood” is a tale of redemption, faith, and the complexities of human nature. Despite its rich thematic content, the book has not received the level of attention it deserves.

“Wise Blood” is both a social critique and a spiritual quest, wrapped in a narrative filled with grotesque characters and bizarre situations. For those willing to plunge into its dark depths, this book offers a unique perspective on the contradictions and absurdities of human life.

Conclusion

Literature is an ever-expanding universe, filled with numerous stars that often go unnoticed. The 15 novels highlighted above, each magnificent in its own unique way, are hidden gems that offer rich, multi-layered narratives and provoke deep thought. They may not have garnered widespread fame, but they each contribute significantly to the tapestry of global literature.

So, the next time you find yourself wandering through the labyrinthine aisles of a bookshop or scrolling through an online catalogue, consider straying from the beaten path. You may just stumble upon an underrated masterpiece that not only entertains but enriches your understanding of the human condition.

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