Sad, Haunting Books to Make You Cry

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A little while back, I put up my list of happy, uplifting books for readers looking for something light and funny. And then I thought, “Hmm, why not go the opposite way now and put up a list of super sad, tear-inducing reads as well?”

So here you go – these are some of my top picks for super sad reads. Books that you can a lovely good cry with and leave your loved ones going, “Oh my God, are you okay? What’s wrong? Tell me… oh. Oh. You’re reading another one of those books again? Christ, get a grip.”

To which you reply through the tears streaming down your face, “I will not get a grip! Don’t you *sniffle* understand *sob* how *weep* sad and *sniffle* beeee-yooo-tee-FULL this book is?!??!?!”

To which you are then exiled to the weird corner. But you don’t care because you still have your book and your box of tissues that you can bury your face in every time you recall that wonderful, agonizing, delightfully evocative scene.

At the very least, you have found an outlet for your emotions.

So without further ado, go forth and read – and weep!

Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer

Isolation and loneliness is the main theme of the Southern Reach trilogy. And how not to when the first title of the trilogy is Annihilation, followed by Authority and Acceptance? It sounds partly like a brutal political regime, partly sounds like the names of the three wicked stepsisters turned apocalyptic horsewomen!

Annihilation starts off with an intriguing premise – a biologist, an anthropologist, a psychologist and a surveyor… do not walk into a bar. Instead, they walk into a mysterious, abandoned territory known as Area X. No one is really sure what Area X is or why no one can ever live there. But what they do know is that they are the 12th expedition in Area X and things have not gone well with the previous 11 expeditions.

The unnamed biologist is the protagonist in Annihilation and we view Area X through her eyes, a place which, in spite of its frightening aspects, is also a place of beauty, where nature has taken over what humanity has abandoned. We travel with her but we never really get to know her – we’re only provided with clues to her past like vivid red roses just visible through the thorny bramble that surrounds a princess’s tower.

The Southern Reach books are quite suspenseful and also pretty scary at times, particularly in Authority (that freaky closet scene!), but for me, the overall theme was a sense of melancholia and isolation. Most of the characters in the books are lonely, remote beings, with emotional barriers that set them apart even from their closest family members. In the end, you’re not quite sure if these people were made for Area X or if Area X was made for them.

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

I’ve written previously about Station Eleven in an earlier review so I won’t say much more about it here. Set in a post-apocalyptic world where a pandemic known as the Georgian Flu has wiped out most of the population, a group of travelling actors and musicians make their way from outpost to outpost to perform works of Shakespeare for what is left of humanity. How could you not want to read a book with a premise like that? Like Southern Reach, there are enduring themes of loneliness, isolation and longing in Station Eleven, but entwined with a more hopeful strain of optimism and faith.

Deerskin by Robin McKinley

This story is a rather dark retelling of Donkeyskin, a French fairytale by Charles Perrault, in which a princess is forced to escape her father’s own sexual advances. Deerskin is far darker than most of McKinley’s other stories and [spoiler alert!!] even I was rather taken aback by the rape and miscarriage that occurs in the book. But the book is also the story of the Princess Lissar and the long slow healing process that takes place after her father’s assault, and it is also the story of her enduring bond with her faithful deerhound, Ash. It’s not a happy book, but it is story of courage, of healing and of learning to love and trust again.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

(honorary mention The Buried Giant, or basically everything by Kazuo Ishiguro)

All Kazuo Ishiguro’s books have a slow, meandering quality about them like the sleepy currents of a wide river meandering through the countryside. Warning: if you’re looking for a page-turning thriller, this is not it! One is meant to read Ishiguro’s book on a quiet wintry afternoon with rain pouring down the eaves and a cup of hot tea by your side. You’re meant to slowly immerse yourself in the story as you would in a warm bubble bath, and allow the beauty of the prose to chivvy you along the currents. There is a point to Ishiguro’s books, but it is made not with a club over the head, but in a slow, evocative manner that takes its time to sink into your psyche and leaves you thinking about the book long after you’ve finished reading it.

Never Let Me Go follows the lives of three students at Hailsham, a mysterious English boarding school where the students are told they are special and must always look after themselves with great care. But as the reader soon finds out, Hailsham students are part of a wider, more sinister program where humans are bred for organ harvest, and this is the future for which Kathy, Ruth and Tommy are eventually destined. Yet this doesn’t stop them from longing for a different future or wondering about their origins. Eventually, they hear a rumour that Hailsham students are allowed to defer their destiny by a few years if they can prove they have truly fallen in love. But have any of our protagonists truly found love – and can it really change their destiny?

Wicked by Gregory Maguire

I love the Broadway musical Wicked, and picked up the book after I saw the performance of I’m Not That Girl in an episode of Ugly Betty. Be warned! The book is pretty different from the musical, especially in the second half. But it’s still an awesome book and I was glad I’d read the book before I read the musical – and I must admit, though I love the musical and its songs, I find myself preferring Elphaba’s story in the book to that of the musical.

There’s a reason why I included this book in my list of sad stories – the ending had me in massive floods of tears, the sort of tears that would have me sent to the weird corner for crying so heartbrokenly over a fictitious characters in a fictitious story. But I don’t care because Wicked was absolutely, wonderfully, devastatingly heartrending and oh so sad and so touching! I’ve read a number of Gregory Maguire’s books since, including the rest of the books in the Wicked Years series, but I always feel that Wicked remains his best work yet. Minor spoiler alert – if you haven’t already guessed it, the book’s ending is not the same as that of the musical’s!

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

You can already tell The Lovely Bones isn’t a happy story from the first chapter. Teenager Susie Salmon is raped and murdered by her creepy neighbor, who then hides her remains in a sinkhole.

But things don’t end there for Susie, who is now lifted up to heaven from where she watches her family and friends as they struggle to come to terms with the tragedy, to grieve, to heal, to try and find out what happened to her and eventually to accept the loss and move on with their lives. This is the true story of the book – the story of what happens to those left behind as they try to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives, and it is a reminder of how a crime doesn’t just affect the victim and the perpetrator, but also everyone else around them.

The Inspector Shan series by Eliot Pattison

Shan Tao Yun is a former police investigator from Beijing imprisoned in a Tibetan gulag for ‘asking the wrong questions.’ Life in the gulag is harsh and bleak, but Shan still manages to find hope and spiritual faith, thanks to his fellow prisoners, many of whom are peaceful Tibetan monks imprisoned for their faith. The last thing he expects is to be yanked from the gulag and set to investigate the murder case of a local Chinese official whose missing head eventually turns up in a Buddhist shrine of skulls.

The Skull Mantra, the first of the Inspector Shan series, isn’t just a murder mystery but a story about Tibet. Eliot Pattison has certainly done his research and provides the reader with a heartbreaking insight into the suffering of the Tibetans under a merciless and violent Chinese regime where just owning a picture of the Dalai Lama could send a person to the gulag. But it’s also a story of how precious life is and how hope and innocence can thrive even in the darkest and harshest of conditions. Skull Mantra is riveting but my favourite of the Shan series is the second in the series, Water Touching Stone, which features a very poignant and sad love story! It’s a must read for anyone who wants to know more about Tibet, a very special country in spite of all the suffering and brutalism it has endured in recent times.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

I had mixed feelings when I first read Oryx and Crake. This book inspired the MaddAddam series and I must admit I am a bigger fan of the second and third books. But Oryx and Crake was what started it all, and it begins once again with an intriguing premise.

The book is set in the near future, in a world where pretty much all of humanity has been wiped out by an airborne virus, everyone except a group of genetically engineered childlike near-human beings known as the Children of Crake who look to Jimmy aka ‘The Snowman’, the last human being on the planet, to guide them.

But Jimmy isn’t a wise and loving guru sort of guy. He’s feckless, lonely, scared, bitter and still struggling to come to terms with the events that led up to the catastrophe that killed off all of his kind. As Jimmy struggles to survive in this post-apocalyptic world made dangerous by a lack of food, medical supplies and by the dangerous lab-engineered animals now roaming freely about, he reflects back on life before the plague, on a world where the rich lived in luxurious, high-tech, high-security compounds and the poor are left to fend for themselves in sprawling, crumbling, violet ghettos, a world where gene-splicing and genetically modified foods have become the norm, and on his relationships with his best friend, Crake, an intellectual genius whose lack of emotions border on sociopathy, and Oryx, the mysterious, beautiful woman both Jimmy and Crake are obsessed with, each for their own reasons.

Oryx and Crake can be a pretty disturbing and depressing read, and it comes frighteningly close to the truth when it comes to our present and future world. And the characters aren’t much better – one Amazon reviewer comments that Jimmy is probably the worst protagonist in history and that’s not too far off the mark for the Snowman is certainly no golden hero. Having said that, Oryx and Crake is one hell of a book and it will certainly provide plenty of food for thought – and a lot of home truths about just what we’re doing to our planet and to ourselves.

Dangerous Love by Ben Okri

I was first introduced to Ben Okri’s work by a friend who recommended his bestselling book The Famished Road. The Famished Road was beautiful and enchanting in its own way, but I would have to say that Dangerous Love has to be my favourite Okri book so far.

Set in Lagos, Nigeria in the 1970s, Dangerous Love is the story of the sensitive young artist Omovo. Right from the start, the odds are set against Omovo. He is disenchanted with his job as an office worker, his colleagues dislike him, he lives in a compound with his hot-tempered, egotistical father and his catty second wife, who dislikes Omovo as much as he dislikes her, his beloved brothers are long gone from home, a political official takes a dislike to one of his paintings and he is in love with Ifeyiwa woman who is married to a violent, jealous bully.

But in the midst of the poverty, the corruption, the jealousies and the violence that permeates post-war Lagos, there is still hope and love, friendship and happiness. Dangerous Love can hardly be said to be a happy book, yet it is a haunting, elegantly written story that comes alive with the poetical beauty of Okri’s writing. Omovo and Ifeyiwa are two of my favourite characters, and not just because they have had to fight against so many obstacles simply to be happy. This book will capture you from the beginning and keep you enthralled to the end.

Phew! I told myself I’d keep it simple and quick this time around, but once again it looks like I don’t have the ability to write short reviews! If you stayed till the very end, I hope you enjoyed the reviews and found some new books to read (and cry over!) Thanks for sticking around this far!


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