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For some reason, I have been feeling particularly gloomy lately. My way of handling periodic down periods, like most rational people, involves reading utterly wrenching novels that gut me and leave me flailing around on the floor because they're so intensely depressing, re-watching “Six Feet Under,” and thinking that maybe I should call my meds manager.
So, you ask, which novels do I recommend for sending you deep into a spiral of depression so dark that it feels like you've been sucked into a black hole? I'm so glad you inquired!
“The Sparrow,” Mary Doria Russell
This happens to be my favorite book of all time, which possibly tells you something about me. Set in a theoretical near-future version of society, “The Sparrow” imagines that we have finally identified signs of an alien civilization, and have the technology to reach it. An enterprising crew of scientists and Jesuits sets forth inside an asteroid to the far-off world of Rakat with the intent of establishing contact with the entities who live there.
What they find there is amazing, but also devastating. This is a book that will not stop punching you in the face and simultaneously challenging you with very real and important questions about encounters across cultures, colonization, unintended consequences of seemingly innocent actions, faith, belief, and standing with oppressed groups. It's an emotional rollercoaster, woven through with brilliant writing.
If you generally don't like genre fiction and the idea of science fiction tends to put you off, please don't let that dissuade you from reading “The Sparrow.” I promise you, it's a fantastic book -- and most of the people I recommend it to become evangelistic converts for this totally underrated piece of 20th century literature.
“A Personal Matter,” Kenzaburo Oē
Oē's work in general is both fantastic and highly autobiographical. This is one among several books he's written exploring the birth of his son Hikari, who has significant cognitive disabilities. While I have very complex and mixed feelings about exploiting the lives of real people, especially disabled children, “A Personal Matter” is a sharp commentary on how people react to the births of disabled children (it contrasts with “The Silent Cry,” in which the narrator makes very different decisions in a similar situation).
That said, the book involves some tough subject matter including discussions of infanticide, ableism, alcoholism, suicide, and self-harm.
I do love this little vignette from the real life of Hikari, relayed during an interview with “The Paris Review” when Oē was asked about his Nobel Prize:
[Hikari] answered the phone and said in English, No, and then again, No. Then Hikari handed me the phone. It was a member of the Nobel committee of the Swedish Academy. He asked me, Are you Kenzaburo? I asked him if Hikari had refused the Nobel Prize on my behalf and then I said, I’m sorry—I accept.
This trilogy of novels is set in an alternate history version of Britain where fascists have risen to power, Jewish residents are persecuted, and complex legal and political games are underfoot. Our hero, Peter Carmichael, becomes embroiled in the politics of this world even as he's trying to do his job as a Scotland Yard inspector.
These are stories of compromised ethics, but also of quiet, relentless horror. Had things not gone the way they did in the Second World War, this is what we could have faced; a world in which fascism sprawled across Europe, neighbors weren't to be trusted, and people desperately tried to escape when and where they could. There's also a deep personal note to the stories as Carmichael struggles with compromised ethics, the deaths of those he loves, and his deeply illegal and secretive relationship with his lover.
Something about reading this trilogy always puts me in a gloomy mood, though the writing is transcendent and the storytelling is about much more than mystery thrillers and alternate history theories.
“When She Woke,” Hilary Jordan
I may have recommended this book before, but not on a list of depressing books! Also an imagined future narrative, this story is set in a United States where fundamentalist Christians have taken over, and where criminals are Chromed: forced to endure a genetic treatment that changes the color of their skin for a given period of time. Our heroine is a Red, sentenced to Chroming because she aborted her child.
“When She Woke” follows her as she leaves the Chroming facility and tries to build a new life in a society where her skin stigmatizes her, and she eventually falls in with a revolution of people who want to change the system and get Chromed women to safety. But it's also about the aftermath of her abortion, the illicit relationship that led to her pregnancy in the first place, and the endless terror of living in a society where sexuality is repressed and forbidden.
I often compare it to “The Handmaid's Tale,” another book along similar themes of reproductive freedom and control, but this feels even more acutely real to me because of the ongoing political situation in the United States. When I read “When She Woke,” I see the face of our own potential future.
“The Book of Lost Things,” John Connolly
This book actually has a happy ending, unlike some of the others on this list, but you'll have a rough ride to get there. It's a dark, monstrous, twisted adaptation of fairy tales and a young boy's desire to escape from the world. The first time I read it, I found myself glued to the couch needing to know what happened next, and was surprised when I looked up to discover that many hours had passed.
I love fairy tale retellings and books that play around with traditional narratives, both of which are done deftly here in this well-crafted, beautifully written text. It might render you useless for a few hours, but you'll spend the next few days staggering around in a literature-induced haze, which makes it all worth it.
“Life in the Tomb,” Stratis Myrivilis
Not exactly a book you see in common circulation in the US, but well worth it if you can track down a copy (fortunately, used versions are often readily available). This text is set in trenches of war-torn Greece during the First World War, and it is probably the best war novel I've ever read, in addition to being up there among my favorite books ever. It's also, as you might have guessed since it's on this list, absolutely and completely horrific.
Myrivilis takes the reader on an unflinching and awful tour through trench warfare, and it's illustrated so starkly and harshly that it really makes me wonder how people thought going to war ever again after enduring the conditions he described was a good idea. (Answer: the people going to war weren't the ones building trench walls out of the dead bodies of their companions and eating rats to survive.) This anti-war novel caused a significant sensation when it came out, as it was a standout even in the Greek literary explosion of the 1920s and 30s.
Read “Life in the Tomb” if you want an illustration of why war should never happen anywhere ever, and if you like good writing, the kind of writing that is so vivid and sharp and imaginative that it kind of makes you want to hurl.