Sometimes it’s fun to read books in pairs. Occasionally I’ll do this in a planned way: choosing two books I think will complement each other, perhaps because one is a novel and the other is a nonfiction title delving into the facts behind that story, or because one novel is based on another novel, or I might just pair books which are thematically similar. My hope when reading books in pairs like this is that they will bounce off each other, creating conversations, heightening my love of both.

On a few occasions, I’ve read two books in succession which I didn’t expect to share similarities, but because of the time and place I read them I now can’t separate the two in my head. An example of this is when I read Sum by David Eagleman followed by Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman. Sum is a short story collection where Eagleman imagines 40 different versions of the afterlife: one version where you are made to relive your life experiences in blocks (so you’ll spend six days clipping your nails, 15 months looking for lost items, two hundred days in the shower); and Einstein’s Dreams is a novel imagining Einstein’s life when he was developing his theory of relativity. The book spins complex dreams where Einstein sees worlds where time acts in different ways: one where it’s mapped out, so you can walk from one century to another. These books beautifully echo each other but it was a happy coincidence that I read them side by side. That’s a reading experience I would heartily recommend, and I thought I would suggest other reading pairs for you today.

Braised Pork by An Yu is a highly allegorical novel set in Beijing, and was one of my favourite reads of 2020. The main character, Jia-Jia, discovers the body of her husband with a strange drawing clutched in his hand, like a riddle she is supposed to solve. Jia Jia has also been thinking about the disappearance of her mother – another unanswered riddle in her life. When her mother disappeared years earlier, she was reading Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, and for that reason I would recommend reading Jane Eyre before picking up Braised Pork. It’s certainly not a necessity, but both are about duality of self, and Braised Pork contains so many thought-provoking nods to Bronte’s novel, which makes it come to life in a whole new way.

Assembly by Natasha Brown is a short, sharp novel about a young black woman who travels to her white boyfriend’s family estate for a party. On the journey and during her time there, she reflects on ownership of space and literature, how his family constantly view her as ‘out of place.’ Wanderland by Jini Reddy is a superb nonfiction book further exploring themes of belonging, especially when applied to the English countryside and systemic racism.

The Republic of Motherhood by Liz Berry is a short chapbook which I always gift to friends of mine who have recently become mothers. It begins: “I crossed the border into the Republic of Motherhood / and found it a queendom, a wild queendom. In a similar vein, Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder is a visceral novel of new-parenthood. In it, ‘the mother’ routinely morphs into an animal, the only way to freely express her new way of being. Primal, instinctive, raging against the societal expectations of female bodies, it’s a wonderful use of extended metaphor, and very funny in places, too.

The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley is an utterly bizarre post-apocalyptic novel where women have turned into mushrooms. You might think that something so outrageous couldn’t really be believable, but it managed to get under my skin, and I still think about it all the time. There are two books I would pair with this one, depending on what you’re in the mood for. If you’d like more magical strangeness, then Follow Me To Ground by Sue Rainsford is a novel about a father and daughter who don’t appear to be human, and who bury people in their garden to help them heal. However, if you’d like to learn about how fascinating mushrooms are in real life, Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake is a feast of fungi-related facts.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett is an intergenerational tale stemming from the story of two sisters who lost touch at the age of sixteen. It’s based on the novel Passing by Nella Larsen, published almost a hundred years previously, and both explore colourism, racism and family ties. Passing is an absolute gem of a book; one of those beautifully succinct novels where every word sings.

The Butcher’s Hook by Janet Ellis and Flowers of Mould by Ha Seong-nan are both books which explore the revenge of teenage girls. Poor Things by Alasdair Gray and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro interrogate the role of science in society and how power can be misused. The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow is a joyful read, especially after devouring Pride and Prejudice. Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier brings 19th century palaeontologist Mary Anning back to life, and A Lab of One’s Own by Patricia Fara is a nonfiction book highlighting women throughout history whose work in science has not been celebrated enough.

I would love to hear about your experiences of reading books in pairs, or any books which you perhaps read separately but would recommend reading together. Let us know in a comment down below.

Article written by author Jen Campbell whose latest book is The Sister Who Ate Her Brothers.

Images courtesy of Jen Campbell.

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I definitely do this, especially rereading classics before jumping into a retelling or refashioning, like Passing/Vanishing Half or Pride and Prejudice/Other Bennet Sister. I also sometimes try to connect what I’m reading like a chain of interrelated books – eg after reading Pine, set in contemporary Scotland, I moved onto The Ninth Child which is about the fae in historical Scotland, so then I might pick something else about fairies…etc!

Stephy 2 years ago

What a great idea! I especially like the idea of pairing fiction with non-fiction to gain a deeper understanding of a story. Also, Sum and Einstein’s Dreams sound fascinating.

Debbie 2 years ago

It’s so interesting that you mentioned The Vanishing Half and Passing — my friend loaned me the latter after I had loaned her the former. Another pairing was that after reading Nina Stibbe’s “Love, Nina,” I had to go track down all of Alan Bennett’s Diaries, of course! I couldn’t get enough of that dry droll voice.

Kim 2 years ago