Books can really blow your doors off, huh? Here are four novels that will have you sitting up at night staring at your wall, wondering how fictional characters could make you feel so goddamned sad.
The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers
I read the majority of this on public transportation, which was a mistake because I cried twice and it was embarrassing. This is possibly one of the loveliest books I’ve read in a long time. Centered around five different people in a small, teeming Southern town in the 1940s, Carson McCullers’ debut book is heart-wrenching, dark, and unbearably beautiful. McCullers does a wonderful job capturing five distinct voices as well as the essence of the stifling environment they live in.
There’s a rare provocative intensity in her writing that’s unmatched in almost anything else I’ve ever read. McCullers’ politics are apparent here—the town and its habitants are plagued by poverty and racism, and a few of the characters are prone to radical leftist monologues bemoaning the evils of capitalism. Despite this, the novel resists becoming a piece of propaganda, and is instead a portrait of regular people trying to navigate their surroundings the best they can. It’s not a particularly bright story, but McCullers finds the beauty in despair in a way that will simultaneously break your heart and fill you with hope.
A Lesson Before Dying, Ernest Gaines
This one is a slow burn, the emotion building until the last chapter, where Ernest Gaines rips your heart in half. A Lesson Before Dying tells the story of Jefferson, an uneducated black field worker who is wrongfully accused and convicted of the robbery and murder of a white man and is sentenced to death. Determined that he dies with dignity, Jefferson’s godmother turns to Grant Wiggins, a cynical black teacher at the local plantation school, to visit Jefferson in jail and teach him to be a man.
The novel explores black identity in a Jim Crow era South; it is a quiet study of a time and place. Not overly emotional, the story unravels cautiously—and even though the outcome of the novel is laid out in the first chapter, the last few pages still come as a kick to the chest. As you might predict, the “lesson before dying,” goes both ways, as Grant comes to a new understanding about his community and his role in it.
The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz
One of my favorite books of all time, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao has literally everything you’d ever want in a book. Guided by wry, irreverent narrator Yunior, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is the story of three generations of a Dominican family, spanning from the Santo Domingo to Patterson, New Jersey. The book is a well-researched examination of Trujillio-era Dominican Republic and its after-shock, still felt in the D.R. long past Trujillo’s rule. The book’s hero is Oscar, a geeky, overweight Dominicano who, according to Yunior, “wore his nerdiness like a Jedi wore his light saber or a Lensman her lens. Couldn’t have passed for Normal if he’d wanted to.”
Oscar’s story is accompanied by his mother, Beli’s, his sister, Lola’s, and his grandfather, Abelard’s. All three chronicles weave themselves around the others in a beautiful study of family, masculinity, cultural dissonance and life during wartime. Despite its light narrative style and many moments of humor, Diaz’s epic is painful, filled with disappointment and heartache—some of which are universal and others that most readers likely couldn’t begin to understand.
The God Of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
When done right, a child-narrated piece of literature can reach levels of profundity far deeper than books narrated by adult characters. Such is true in Arundhati Roy’s novel The God Of Small Things, where she explores the fragile consciousness of fraternal twins growing up in Kerala, India. Our two heroes, Rahel and Estha, are seven years old, navigating the sociopolitical implications of a post-colonial India the best way they know how.
We see a large part of the novel through Rahel’s eyes, as she pieces together all that’s left unsaid in her family. We watch as she watches; her mother, brother, father grandmother, uncle and cousin all flounder to determine their identities in an unstable world. Roy employs a non-linear timeline, weaving together timelines and flashbacks that ultimately culminate in tragedy. The books question surrounds what Rahel and Estha call the Love Laws, that ask, “Who should be loved and how? And how much?” Crushing and tender, Roy’s book is not one you’ll easily forget.