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The best (spoiler-free!) book twists of all time

Eight modern classic novels with unexpected and masterful plot twists.

Image: Penguin
Image: Penguin

When the film The Sixth Sense came out in China, promoters decided not to translate the title literally; they wanted the posters to give a little more story. In the end, they went with ‘He’s a Ghost’.

Thankfully, when it comes to books plot twists are usually kept under wraps. And as we all know, nothing hits the spot like a masterful narrative shift, just at the moment you were least expecting it.

We haven’t spoiled them here, so read on for eight of the finest plot twists ever. Then read the novels to see what we’re on about.

The plot: Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy are students at Hailsham, a prestigious boarding school buried deep in the English countryside. It's far from the Dickens school of educational establishments: there are no beatings, sadistic housemasters, or gruel. Their physical health is paramount – no smoking, good food and lots of exercise. But from the outset, we know, there's something special about these children. There's a whiff of Kafka in the air. They have no parents, no surnames, and are forbidden from leaving the school grounds. Any contact with the outside world, in fact, is strictly forbidden. So why are they there?

Not all terrific twists need to come at the end. Actually, the first one comes fairly early on.

The twist: Not all terrific twists need to come at the end. Actually, the first one comes fairly early on. But when it does, it's a jaw-slackening doozy. They're human clones being harvested for their organs. The only way out of their fate, they believe, is to prove that they're humans who are capable of love. So the three spend their days trying to save themselves before they are harvested to death. Ruth doesn't make it, leaving Kathy and Tommy, who finally find their old school mistress, who gives them some earth-shattering news. It's an ending you may not want, but will never forget.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938)

In this dark and soapy romance, a young, shy, and anonymous orphan gets swept off her feet by a much older – and colder – English gent called Maxim de Winter. She marries him (why, it's hard to tell; he's not a fun guy), before moving into his grand country pile, Manderley.

But soon she finds neither she, nor the vast house, can shake the haunting spectre of Maxim's dead wife, Rebecca. The servants, still loyal to Rebecca's memory, go out of their way to make the new Mrs de Winter feel inferior and unwelcome. Rebecca was a vivacious beauty, they repeatedly remind her, and no new model could ever compete. Our heroine is nothing but a thorn in Rebecca's memory, and her marriage to Maxim a stain on the great family. Maxim could never love her like he loved Rebecca. Could he?

The twist: Here is a psychological thriller that twists and turns like a python in a sack. The moment you think you know where the characters stand, Du Maurier sweeps the rug with a juddering snap. Was Rebecca the paragon of virtue, as we are at first led to believe? Did Maxim really love her? And how, exactly, did she die? Once the snake's out of the bag, it bites you right in the brain.

The plot: It might seem trite to add an Agatha Christie mystery in a list of twists. She was, after all, the Picasso of unexpected turns – a grand master in the art of the literary rug-pull. But this deserves a place by a simple virtue: it's the most successful book she ever wrote, and one of the biggest-selling books of all time. Ten guests receive a mysterious invitation to a luxurious island resort by a mysterious U. N. Owen (a play on ‘unknown’?). They are all strangers, with one thing in common (first twist): they're all murderers in one shape or form. Then, over the next two days, they start dropping like... well, not flies, but the Ten Little Soldier Boys in what must be the bleakest children's nursery rhyme ever written (just Google it): chopping wood in one's sleep, hanging, etc. As they die, one by one, the survivors try to work out who could be the killer. But soon, they're all dead, and it's over to Scotland Yard.

Ten strangers receive an invitation to a luxurious island resort, with one thing in common: they're all murderers.

The twist: Billed as 'the famous detective story without a detective', there are twists aplenty in this tale, building layer upon layer of social and psychological complexities onto the country-house mystery trope. But the biggest one, of course, is who actually dunnit? You already know the killer – it's Christie, duh! – you've known them all along.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel (2001)

The plot: A 16-year-old boy named Pi and his zookeeping family set sail with their animals from India to Canada to escape the political instability of 1970s India. But, when the ship sinks, only four survivors make it aboard the only lifeboat that floats: Pi, an injured zebra, an orangutan, a hyena and a seasick tiger called Richard Parker. There, they must survive until rescue, dry land or death. Before long, the politics of the animal kingdom being as they are, only Pi and the tiger are left alive. So Pi resolves, rather than kill or be killed, to tame Richard Parker, “'because if he died I would be left alone with despair, a foe even more formidable than a tiger.” There begins a staggeringly beautiful existential ordeal-slash-seafaring adventure that sailed away with the Booker Prize in 2002. At one point, they reach a meerkat-infested island surrounded by carnivorous seaweed, which together they survive before heading back out to sea. After 227 days at sea they are finally washed up in Mexico.

The twist: No one believes Pi's psychedelic story. So he tells officials another story – with no animals, but with the ship's cook (the hyena), a Taiwanese sailor with a broken leg (zebra), and his own mother (orangutan). In that version, Pi is the tiger and his story was merely an elaborate metaphor. Or was it?

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead (2019)

The plot: Elwood Curtis lives in New York City now, but when the horrific story of the school he attended as a boy – its secret graveyard for dead students, its treatment of Black children – is revealed by the media, he knows he’ll have to return to Florida. From there, Colson Whitehead’s (second) Pulitzer Prize-winning novel tells the story of Elwood’s plight, starting in the 1960s when he was a smart Black boy from Tallahassee headed for a bright future. Elwood keeps his head up, even when he’s wrongly accused of a crime and sentenced to a year at the corrective institute called The Nickel School, but the school’s abhorrent treatment of its students eventually wears him down and changes his life forever.

The twist: The prologue and epilogue of The Nickel Boys are both set in the present, and the epilogue reveals just how deeply the mistreatment stayed with the school’s students – not to mention a twist so deep that it re-contextualises the prologue and Elwood’s entire life and legacy.


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