Book pairings: fiction & non-fiction titles that complement each other

Have you ever read a fiction book based on a true story and then wanted to read a non-fiction book on the same topic so that you can learn more? Or perhaps it has been the other way around: you’ve read a non-fiction book and thought you’d like to read something fictional inspired by those same events, people or places?

I love non-fiction and fiction pairings, the kinds of books that inform each other and give you a more rounded view of a particular subject, character, place or event.

Taking inspiration from Karen’s post on Booker Talk, here are four book pairings I have put together. As ever, links take you to my reviews.

On the love of mothers and of mining your own life for fiction

The Barracks by John McGahern

‘Memoir’ & ‘The Barracks’ both by John McGahern 

In Memoir, published in 2005, the late John McGahern wrote about his childhood and adolescence growing up in rural Ireland in the 1940s and 1950s. It reads very much like a love letter to his beloved mother, who died of breast cancer when he was eight years old, and an angry diatribe against his policeman father who showed his ill wife little empathy.

In his debut novel, The Barracks, McGahern writes from the perspective of a woman who returns to the rural Ireland of her childhood after the Second World War. Here she marries the local police sergeant, a widower, and becomes stepmother to his three children. When she develops breast cancer she hides it from everyone. It’s a dark, Catholic novel, but when you understand the events it was inspired by it seems to resonate with extra meaning and is a deeply powerful read.

On Australia’s immigration detention system

‘No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison’ by Behrouz Boochani & ‘Spinifex & Sunflowers’ by Avan Judd Stallard

Behrouz Boochani’s award-winning non-fiction book, No Friend but the Mountains, details his time detained on Manus Island, Australia’s shameful offshore immigration detention facility. It’s an eye-opening account of cruelty and abuse, where the authorities fail to treat asylum seekers with any kind of dignity or respect.

Avan Judd Stallard’s novel, Spinifex & Sunflowers, is a fictionalised account of his own time as a prison guard in one of Australia’s immigration detention centres — in this case the one in Curtin, Western Australia, which is no longer operating. His novel highlights how the guards are given little training to deal with “prisoners” and that many of those employed in such roles are doing it simply for the money.

On black deaths in custody/Palm Island

‘The Tall Man: Life and Death on Palm Island’ by Chloe Hooper & ‘The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow’ by Thea Astley

Chloe Hooper’s shocking true crime book, The Tall Man, explores the death of Aboriginal man Cameron Doomadgee who died in police custody on Palm Island, one of the largest Aboriginal communities in Australia with a dark and torrid history.  (It was set up by the State Government in 1916 as a place to house Aboriginals as a kind of punitive mission.) This book demonstrates that in Australia there is one law for white people and another for black.

Thea Astley’s novel, The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow, is set in the same location, albeit under a different name, but takes a real-life incident from the 1930s as her inspiration. That incident involved a grief-stricken white superintendent who went on a drink-and-drug-fuelled rampage and set fire to many buildings. He used dynamite to blow up his own home, killing his two children inside, and after fleeing the island temporarily, was gunned down upon his return.

On life as a geisha

‘Autobiography of a Geisha’ by Sayo Masuda & ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ by Arthur Golden

Sayo Masuda’s much-acclaimed autobiography documents what happens to her when, aged 12, she was sold to a geisha house in 1930s Japan. Despite the material comforts she earns, her life is far from happy and carefree.

Arthur Golden’s novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, is a fictionalised account of a young girl whose parents sell her to a man with connections to a top geisha house in Tokyo. The book details her education and “apprenticeship”, describes the auctioning of her virginity and her subsequent rise as one of  Japan’s most celebrated geishas.

I wrote this post as part of Nonfiction November, which is hosted by Katie of Doing Dewey, Julz of Julz Reads, Rennie of What’s Nonfiction, and Leann of Shelf Aware

What do you think of these book pairings? Can you recommend any others?

14 thoughts on “Book pairings: fiction & non-fiction titles that complement each other

    • Interesting about Sayo Masada. I know that Golden was sued by a geisha (not Sayo) whom he’d interviewed for research because he’d promised to keep her anonymous but then thanked her in the book’s acknowledgements. D’oh!

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  1. Great pairings, and a great concept, thanks. I guess I’m hoping that readers of Kate Grenville’s latest novel ‘A Room Made of Leaves’ (in which the main character is Elizabeth Macarthur) will pair it with my 2018 biography of Elizabeth Macarthur. It would be an interesting exercise in thinking about how best to understand real-life historical figures.

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    • Thanks Michelle. Actually that pairing did come to mind, but because I haven’t read the books (both are in my TBR!) I didn’t feature them here. I think fiction and non-fiction accounts can help give a more rounded view of a character / place / event / issue. I’ll look forward to seeing how both inform and complement Elizabeth MacArthur when I get around to reading them.

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  2. I loved Memoirs of a Geisha as a teenager but I know that it’s been rightly criticised for its orientalist depiction of Japan (the male gaze in the novel is also pretty uncomfortable). Masuda’s autobiography sounds like a great counterbalance.

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  3. Those are three great pairs, Kim. I really should read the Palm Is pair, though whether I can stand being so angry for the time it takes me to read them is another matter. Domadgee’s death and the subsequent cover up by the Queensland police and government (and constant on-going deaths in custody) are just so emblematic of how wrong it is to say that all that Black Armband history is behind us, and probably didn’t happen anyway.

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    • It took me many months to review Hooper’s book. Not only did it make me very angry, it made me ashamed to be Australian. I’d never read a book like it. It’s worth reading though, if only to see how unjust the whole criminal justice system is in this country when it comes to First Nations people.

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