Top 10 novels and stories about shame

Anna Ahmatova, David Malouf, Yukio Mishima and more explore the emotion that tears us apart but leads us into compassion, writes Christos Tsiolkas

I was an adolescent when I first came across the letters of St Paul. Though I had been raised Greek Orthodox, at 13 I had joined an evangelical church in the hope that God would banish my shame. The shame of being different. The shame of hurting my immigrant parents’ honour. The shame of being gay. At that age, all I could hear from Paul was his admonishment in his first letter to the Corinthians that my homosexuality would banish me for ever from God’s love and grace. I battled with that for over two years before finally abandoning my faith. It was a relief to declare myself atheist, and a relief to begin the slow, difficult process of extricating myself from shame.

In my late 20s, however, I experienced another form of shame. I had betrayed a man I loved. I had betrayed my ideals. In a state of misery I found myself walking into a small Uniting Church. My body fell to weeping and prayer – for aid from a God in whom I no longer believed. On the pew in front of me there was a copy of the New Testament and I began to read it. I read Paul’s letter to the Romans and this time I heard the voice of a man struggling with doubt and confusion, shame and regret. And I heard his words of solace and compassion. My novel Damascus is my attempt to reconcile these two versions of Paul. It is the story of a man, not a saint, since it is the living, breathing, conflicted man who interests me. This is the man we can still hear 2,000 years later through the letters he left us.

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