Ten Contemporary “Thriller” Novels That Highlight the Natural World
You don’t have to be a nature lover to appreciate a well-written novel scene that incorporates the natural world. Especially during a time of twin global threats brought by pandemic and climate change, it seems like more and more people are paying closer attention to the natural world—perhaps growing a vegetable garden for the first time; or taking walks/bike rides in parks, forests, fields, and beaches, reacquainting themselves with nature; or joining social movements that seek to mitigate the damage done by global climate change and pollution; or, like me, planting a pollinator garden to help feed the bees, butterflies, songbirds, and other pollinators that need support, while also personally benefitting from the peaceful beauty and harmony a bit of nature provides during a time of great uncertainty and stress.
In contemporary novels (and not just in “cli-fi,” i.e. climate fiction), there has also been a renewed focus on the natural world, which I would argue is a great thing for both fiction and humanity in general! But I don’t seem to be alone in this assessment. The wild success of recent nature-focused thrillers like Delia Owen’s Where the Crawdads Sing which has been an international smash-hit, and Richard Power’s The Overstory which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize along with a host of other prestigious literary awards, shows just how hungry for and appreciative of the natural world being present within the fictional world readers actually are.
Whether a narrow, more micro focus like the delightful flora and fauna of the coastal marsh that shapes Where the Crawdads Sing, or a wider, more macro focus like the dramatic tropical island and arctic settings that shape Esi Edugyan’s narrative in Washington Black, nature can inhabit the world of fiction in a way that not only enriches the story itself, but also readers’ experience of that story: its particular world, its characterizations, its emotions, and its movements both large and small.
In compelling fiction, “nature”—including flora, fauna, natural phenomena, viruses, the cosmos, and everything in between—can play a dramatic role, intensifying character and story development, and serving as a powerful catalyst of change while also embodying the full gamut of human emotion. Like I tell my honors creative writing students each semester: the natural world as expressed in fiction should never just sit around looking pretty, serving only as a backdrop or a bit of obligatory description readers will likely skip over—a static bit of nothing sitting around doing nothing. Instead, in well-written fiction nature often functions as a main force in of itself, even as a kind of main character, hopefully teaching us a new thing or two about ourselves and the world around us in the process. After all, there is no “us” without the natural world, and I don’t think fiction should be devoid of the natural world either!
These ten novels fulfill all the promise nature has to offer to compelling, well-written fiction:
- Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens
- Washington Black, Esi Edugyan
- The Overstory, Richard Powers
- IDAHO, Emily Ruskovich
- Perma Red, Debra Magpie Earling
- A Plague of Doves, Louis Erdrich
- Year of Wonders, Geradine Brooks
- The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert
- State of Wonder, Ann Patchett
- Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver
Annie Lampman is author of the nature-focused literary-thriller SINS OF THE BEES (Pegasus Crime/Simon & Schuster, September 2020) and the limited-edition letter-press-printed poetry chapbook BURNING TIME (Limberlost Press, Fall 2020). She has been awarded the Dogwood Literary Award in Fiction, the Everybody Writes Award in Poetry, a Best American Essays “Notable,” a Pushcart Prize Special Mention, a 2020 Literature Fellowship from the Idaho Commission on the Arts, and a national Bureau of Land Management artist’s residency in the Owyhee Canyonlands Wilderness. Her narrative essays, poetry, and short fiction have been published or are forthcoming in sixty-some literary journals and anthologies such as The Normal School, Orion Magazine, The Massachusetts Review, and Women Writing the West. She is an honors creative writing professor at the Washington State University Honors College and lives in Moscow, Idaho on the rolling hills of the Palouse Prairie where she has a pollinator garden full of native flowers, herbs, berries, butterflies, bumblebees, solitary bees, honeybees, hummingbirds, and songbirds. annielampman.com