When I’m really sad – the kind of sad that makes it hard to get out of bed or speak in full sentences – I will exclusively listen to sad music. I know how counterintuitive this is, but do I stop? No. Because I love being miserable and making things worse. The ultimate crybaby.
I do the same thing with books. I don’t want to read something soft and uplifting if I’m having a shit time and the absolute last thing I need is to be bombarded with the happiness of other people (even if those people are literally not real). So, in no particular order, here’s a weeny list of some of the saddest books I’ve read. They will definitely make bad days worse but, from personal experience, there’s some healing power in being captivated by wounds that are not your own.*
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Alright I know I said I wasn’t putting these in order but this is my favourite book of all time, which probably says a lot about me if you wanted to read into it.
Following Jude and various friends from university into the real world, Yanagihara explores some of the most devastating and painful parts of human existence. It is dark and full of suffering and there is simply no book like it. At numerous times I had to put it down and walk away for a few days and when I finally finished it and stopped crying I wanted to throw it directly into traffic. A truly phenomenal book.
When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy
This is a staggering account of domestic violence**, manipulation, abuse and control, and god did it break me.
A woman meets a smart, funny, charismatic man who teaches at a university. She thinks he is brilliant and she agrees to marry him. To the outside world they are an intelligent, vibrant, beautiful couple. But like all cliches, that old one about not knowing what happens behind closed doors exists for a reason. He says cruel things, he beats her, rapes her, and she stays for all the reasons women can’t and don’t leave. Although published as a fictional novel, the title suggests, and Kandasamy has admitted publicly, that this is in fact the story of her own dehumanising first marriage, which makes it all the more traumatising to read.
The Friend: A Novel by Sigrid Nunez
CW: a dog is one of the main characters and you will spend the whole book worried about it.
Nunez’s writing captures the marrow of intimacy, loss, friendship and grief with astonishing accuracy. In The Friend, one woman and a dog both mourn the death of their best friend and gradually learn how to exist in the world without him. Personally, any writing that makes me think about the reality and inevitability of losing my soulmates (platonic or romantic, furry or not) is guaranteed to make me weep. This small book does just that, but it is also a testament to loving deeply and how fucking great that can be.
Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig
I found this one a few years ago, at a time when I really needed it, and I will always be grateful to Haig for writing it.
As inspiring and hopeful as it is heartbreaking, Reasons to Stay Alive is Haig’s own account of battling depression and what brought him light in that perpetual darkness. If you have suffered like Haig or if someone you love does, please read this book. While it is a gut-wrenching account of mental illness, it taught me a lot about counting the tiny, everyday joys and putting them all together to make it through the day, and I am a better friend and child and sibling to my most treasured people because of it.
The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante
I’m genuinely surprised this didn’t win an award just for how depressing it is.
The genius of Ferrante is that, while her plots are always complex and largely painful, it’s her incredible turn of phrase that makes you feel like you’re being run over. In this story, a woman’s entire identity breaks down when her husband leaves her and their children for a younger woman. She is furious and self-pitying and indulges her depression unreservedly. She becomes unhinged and Ferrante’s genius makes you feel, as the reader, as though you are unravelling alongside her.
Sorrow and Bliss: A Novel by Meg Mason
More sorrow than bliss if I’m honest. Actually it’s mostly sorrow. The title is very misleading.
This book moved and changed me so much that I’m not sure how to write about it. The story follows Martha, the narrator, who is assessing her life in retrospect and trying to understand why and how certain things came to be. Multiple relationship breakdowns, erratic choices and turbulent periods with friends and family all work to convince Martha that there is simply something deeply wrong with the person she is. While not exactly blissful, this exceptional account of one woman’s psyche is as funny as it is depressing. I’d probably read a shopping list if Mason wrote it.
This is in no way a comprehensive list (I read a lot of sad shit) but these were the books that first came to mind when I started this post. They all changed my life in some way — they broadened my understanding of diverse human experience, they made me more empathetic, and they forced me to see outside of myself when my own problems were gobbling me up. I hope they give that to you, too.
*If you’re struggling right now, please reach out. Brain stuff can be excruciating and I promise you’re not alone. If you’re in my life then obviously I love ya and I also love to yarn, so let’s get a coffee. And if you need extra help, call Lifeline: 13 11 14
**For domestic violence services, call 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732)