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Campus Novels Are What We Need

As COVID-19 disrupts the quintessential university experience, here are a few campus novel recommendations that remind us of what uni life is really like.

There is something so appealing and engrossing about reading a Campus Novel. Perhaps it’s the zeitgeist of the youth experience, or the relatability of the setting. But as we turbulently navigate our way through a strange and very different semester, with another peculiar one ahead of us, campus novels are a satisfying reminder of how university life can be.

The university experience is certainly strange. From experimenting with new possibilities, to heartbreak and tumultuous emotion, the come of age we endeavour in our years on campus often feels overwhelming. That’s why escaping into a novel set around one of these is a needed reminder of how enjoyable university life can be, and often puts into perspective that there is far more to life than what goes on within a campus.

From enviable cliques to dangerous college obsessions and scandalous parties, here is an ordered list of some of my favourite campus novels to delve into for some escapism and solace over this winter break.

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1. Old School by Tobias Wolff

A coming-of-age novel set on the campus of an elite American prep school, this short but compact book follows a group of literary obsessed young boys. When it is announced that Ernest Hemingway is judging a forthcoming literary competition, stakes rise and a breakdown of relationships and morals ensues. Funny and poignant, this novel will transport you into its preppy, entertaining world.

2. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Brideshead Revisited takes its reader to the scandalous days of Oxford, and focusses largely on the relationship between Charles Ryder and the aristocratic Sebastian Flyte. Ryder undergoes a spiritual awakening when he first discovers Brideshead Castle, the family home of Sebastian. With themes of sexuality and critiques of religion, this novel feels very ahead of its time.

3. The Secret History by Donna Tartt

I don’t believe you can find a more encompassing campus novel than Tartt’s masterpiece which focuses on the enviable clique of six Classic students at an elite liberal arts college in Vermont. Beginning with a murder, the novel also covers themes such as social class and isolation within universities, whilst deconstructing the traditional notion of a murder mystery from a ‘whodunnit’ to a ‘whydunnit’. The Secret History is not only a book you won’t be able to put down, but one that will stay with you forever, in both a sentimental and haunting way.

4. The Rules of Attraction by Brett Easton Ellis

A satirical campus novel centred around the lives of a privileged and riotous group of friends at a bohemian liberal arts college in New Hampshire (inspired by Easton Ellis’s own days at Bennington college). Whilst following the amusing love triangle of the three main characters, the book is told from a multitude of first-person narrators. This is a light-hearted and thoroughly enjoyable read.

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5. Normal People by Sally Rooney

Following the relationship of the two central characters (Connell and Marianne) through high school and university, this book is a poignant portrayal of first love and the struggles of campus life. Connell and Marianne are two incredibly complex and fascinating characters, whilst as the title suggests, they are also very relatable and understandable people. With a blunt and sharp writing style, Rooney intelligently comments on the lives and mental health of young people and, in doing so, created an undeniable cultural ripple.

6. Engleby by Sebastian Faulks

This lesser-known novel by Faulks tells an engrossing tale of obsession at an elite British university and is bound to shock and haunt you. Engleby is a working class boy who struggles to find his place on a campus when he burgeons a concerning infatuation with a fellow pupil, Jennifer, who suspiciously disappears. Masterfully using the technique of unreliable narration, this addicting novel will challenge what you should believe and is difficult to put down!

7. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

For me, this novel was a driving force in the development of the campus novel, and several of the books on this list wouldn’t have been possible without the ground breaking depth, and brutal look at campus life that Murakami achieved here. When Toru hears the song ‘Norwegian Wood’ by The Beatles, he’s immediately transported back to his university days and the difficulties he faced after the sudden suicide of his best friend. Set in 1960s Tokyo, Norwegian Wood is not only a fascinating insight into Japanese life during this unsettled period but also an incredibly poignant examination on grief and emotion.

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