Hillingdon Libraries Staff starts a new Literary Challenge in 2017! We decided to read and review a fiction book on a set theme every month. The first theme is ‘Sad books’. Can you think of a better way to start the new year? We were looking for books that left us a bit melancholic or even made us shed some tears of sadness. Here are our thoughts.
1. At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier
A story based in the Swamp lands of America in the 19th century. I found the storyline moving and sad as back then children were often used as workers and thought of less than offspring that needed to be protected and nurtured. The Mother in this story is selfish and spiteful, a woman whose dependency on alcohol makes her moods swings unpredictable. The Father is weak and full of self disappointment. The relationship between the parents is toxic and violent. Back them it was acceptable to allow children to witness violent acts or be used as a tool in a feud. The sadness grows as the children die of swamp fever, I almost felt relieved that they had managed to escape that lifestyle. Out of 10 children, only 3 survive. The girl is adopted into another family ensuring that she is worked even harder, although her treatment seems fairer. Another child follows in his mother’s footsteps to become dependant on Applejack, a type of cider with a high alcohol content. The story follows the eldest child who walks away from everything he knows at the age of 9 and goes on to cross America to lead a decent life having learned from all the bad things he had seen in his young life. There is a shocking moment, the impact causes everyone’s life to change instantly, there are wonderful lifting moments too and much sadness as lives are lost, through illnesses that today we can treat reasonably simply.
4 out of 5 stars. Barbara – Uxbridge Library
2. A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
When this theme was set, I immediately tried to think of any book I’ve read that be regarded as ‘happy’ – and whilst there aren’t many, it doesn’t mean the majority are especially sad either. But there have been books I’ve founded touching, moving and have even made me cry. A Good In Ruins is one of those. It’s a companion piece to Atkinson’s Life After Life, which has a unique storytelling concept of multiple versions of the life its main character, Ursula. In that novel, Ursula’s brother Teddy is a family favourite and he gets a focus of his own story in this second book. He survives an attack on his plane in the Second World War and through shifting viewpoints and whizzing backwards and forwards in time, we see him as a boy, a young man, into middle-aged and into old age and death. There’s an incredible, mind-altering twist that I’m not going to reveal, but it changes a good novel about a life of semi-contentment and missed opportunities turns into something heartaching. Oh, I sobbed.
4 out of 5 stars. Darren – Uxbridge Library
3. Death in Venice by Thomas Mann
The title says it all. For centuries the city of Venice has been regarded by many as a place of decay and death. A glorious past ending in slow agony. In his most famous short novel Thomas Mann matches this view of Venice with the story of a successful and disciplined middle-aged man who ends his life in loneliness and despair. Plunged in confusion by an unexpected attraction, he struggles in shame and doubt and slowly loses his self-respect. The description of his pitiful attempts to look younger and attractive is particularly powerful. As strong, unsettling smells pervade Venice Lagoon, his life is slowly taken apart. This novel is beautifully written, and rich in powerful scenes, but what I have been left with is mainly a sense of melancholy and sadness. Loss, waste, degradation, and above all an impossible love fill the pages.
4 out of 5 stars. Federico – Northwood Library
4. Watership Down by Richard Adams
I bet as soon as you saw Watership Down, the saddest song in the world ‘Bright Eyes’ started playing in your head. It’s a sad book for sure, but not overwhelmingly so, contrary to popular belief. An epic journey undertaken by a group of feisty and daring rabbits and you are taken with them as they leave their warren after Fiver, a seer rabbit, sees disaster there. Hazel, Fiver’s brother, becomes a popular leader who is fair and kind and leads them through dangerous territories and often upon other warrens where the social structure is not compatible with the way the main group of rabbits do things. Eventually they find their haven and find a ‘sort-of’ peace, but alas, are unable to continue their society as they need does! So they head off in search and come across a place called efrafa, the evilest sort of place and the lovable rogue, Bigwig (he’s my favourite) manages to infiltrate their ranks so he can free some does. What he sees whilst he is in efrafa changes him forever and there are some very powerful lessons that you wouldn’t necessarily find in a children’s book in there. Overall I love and adore this book. It’s a childhood favourite of mine and whilst it is essentially ‘just a story about rabbits’ like Richard Adams said, it teaches us so much more about fairness, bravery, society and how to treat each other.
5 out of 5 stars. Lara – Harefield Library
5. The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford
The Saddest Story was Ford Madox Ford’s original title for this novel, and although it had to be changed as it was published during WW1, it’s a fair indication of the content. Certainly all the main characters are unhappy most of the time, and one dies suddenly, two commit suicide and one goes mad. The narrator says “the record of humanity is a record of sorrow”. The central quartet, the Ashburnhams and the Dowells, become close at a German spa for heart sufferers, and various manipulations, deceptions, adulteries and sentimental sacrifices ensue. The narrator’s version of events is perhaps not to be relied on , but the despairing atmosphere of the book is indisputable. Passion, love, the support which gives us value in our own eyes – all fall away in time. This is the ‘saddest story’, and it is unforgettable.
5 out of 5 stars. Mike – Eastcote Library
6. Germinal by Émile Zola
Set in 1869 in the northern mining villages of France, Zola’s depiction of the mining community in the lead up, action and aftermath of a strike is a grimly accurate account of the struggles to survive extreme hardship. Zola writing in a tumultuous period also focuses on some of the big political debates as industry rapidly expanded and dominated Western Europe. Souvarine an exiled Russian anarchist with an in the end tragic penchant for sabotage and sneers at what he sees as the “evolutionary” socialist arguments of Etienne. Both men watch the progress and infighting in the Independent Working Class Association, but feel very differently about its potential. The brutal violence of the novel is matched by the violence the characters are subjected to in their daily life. Zola has been criticised for a lack of characterisation but his extensive research provides an essentially truthful portrayal of the circumstances of 19th century miners. The mine, Le Voreux (the voracious one) acts more as an additional character then a setting. The descriptions of working conditions were powerful enough for me to feel the heat, cramp, dust and perpetual fear of death. Although their circumstances seem hopeless and most of the characters don’t make it through the novel I take a great deal of optimism from the end. Etienne may well be shocked when after all La Maheude has been through that she is back in the mine, following the path of her husband and the rest of the family. The closing lines are extremely powerful. These reminded me of one of Zola’s contemporaries and a man whose ideas are forever in the background of the story; “When people speak of ideas that revolutionise society, they do but express the fact that within the old society, the elements of a new one have been created.”
5 out of 5 stars. Stephen – Yeading Library
Have you read any of these? Would you read a very sad book on purpose? You can borrow all these books from our catalogue. Thanks for reading!