The Best Books on Grief

After the coronavirus pandemic – or after the first, European-set chapter of it – grief as a concept is returning to the forefront of British life in a way not seen since World War Two. In terms of sheer death-toll, this scale has not been reached for decades. The harrowing figure of 45,000 sits uncomfortably at the top of every article, every news report.

Culturally, grief has always been of interest, but as a theme seems a little neglected. Death as a subject seems more familiar, but its lasting impact on those that surround it is less generally considered. This strikes me as odd. Really, grief and reading are similar – and not just in that we miss good books once they are over. It is about reflection, study, and memory, each cornerstones of reading. Books memorialise experience, as mourners memorialise memories, details, and habits, and reflection follows all reading.

I hope we will rarely need them, but it is at least a small comfort to know that these nine excellent books are there, lurking backstage, to cushion any falls.

Time Lived, Without Its Flow (2012) by Denise Riley

This relatively unknown collection of essays by philosopher Denise Riley is an exploration of grief and temporality after the early death of her son. Each section is entitled with the period of time since his death, and we read, almost with a sense of real time, how grief works and develops with her.  The opening line sums up well what sort of message the book holds: ‘I’ll not be writing about death, but about an altered condition of life.’ That same authoritative, concise tone is carried throughout, and gives the book a distinctly clever voice amongst the messiness that is so often left over from death, but resists closure and solid answers. It is about how the dead’s time is lived within you, and how the temporalities of past, present, and future can be experienced and held together by a single mourner. An intellectual tear jerker that, once the message is decoded, packs a dense punch.

Giovanni’s Room (1956) by James Baldwin

To an extent, most of Baldwin’s work is about grief. In his essays and fiction, there is a longing for a better life in the characters that other people, the white patriarchy, or themselves, hold them from. This novel, his second, is perhaps the most straightforward in its depiction of grief. David, the archetypal, white heterosexual, falls in love with Italian Giovanni whilst his fiancée is away in the south of France. Tragedy ensues as David is not able to move past his conception of himself as a figure of whiteness and American purity.

When tragedy does strike, David attempts to put the past behind him, but the haunting last line of the novel shows how that this will never be possible. After receiving news of Giovanni from friend Jacques, David resolves to move on:

I take the blue envelope which Jacques has sent me and tear it slowly into many pieces, watching them dance in the wind, watching the wind carry them away. Yet, as I turn and begin walking toward the waiting people, the wind blows some of them back on me.

As well as grief for Giovanni, David is also grieving for himself, as his past, and the stark reminder of  his own sexuality that it entails, cannot be put behind him – ‘the wind blows some of them back on me.’

Gangsta Granny (2011) by David Walliams

This children’s novel (although, really, there is no such thing) is a hilarious, uplifting romp that has earned its place in the children’s literature hall of fame. However, it is plagued by a sad, (albeit obvious) ending that, like many children’s novels, serves as the moral lesson of the story. Ben hates spending time at Granny’s house, who is boring, cooks exclusively with cabbage, and plays nothing but Scrabble. However, she is soon ‘revealed’ to be a jewel thief, and Ben takes an interest in her. They become close, and start to conspire to take the crown jewels. Once granny dies, the whole novel in retrospect is coloured by it, and hers and her grandson’s experiences become all the more precious – and sad.

To this day, the book has one of the saddest scenes I have ever read. Ben phones his parents to tell them that he hates being stuck at boring old Granny’s, and that he wants to be at home. Granny overhears, and cries herself to sleep – something obvious to the reader, but not to her grandson. By keeping Ben oblivious to how much he upsets his Granny, the twang is all the more harsh, and the ending all the more bittersweet. I like to think that she knew he had changed his mind about her by the end, but that slight ambiguity is typical of grief. Death always spurs a reassessment of your relationship with the deceased, and Ben’s journey with his Granny serves as an example to readers of all ages to ensure that, when grief comes, regret won’t be mixed up with it. Sob-worthy, and fun.

The Whitsun Weddings (1964) by Philip Larkin

The master of lamenting pessimism’s best collection contains his finest poems on the subjects of loss and grief. Perhaps expanding the definition, almost all of Larkin’s poems in The Whitsun Weddings are about longing for and missing something or someone. They have a black humour to them that Larkin is famous for amongst fans, but not known for explicitly. Most who are not familiar with Larkin seem to see him somewhere alongside Ted Hughes in the stuffy old man category – which he was, in a sense, but a blisteringly funny and self-aware one. ‘Love Songs in Age’ is in this collection, a classic Larkin poem that encapsulates his skill for expressing what was almost, nearly there. After taking out her old albums, all about love and romance, the elderly lady of the poem packs them away in this final stanza.

The glare of that much-mentioned brilliance, love,

                Broke out, to show                                                     

Its bright incipience sailing above,

Still promising to solve, and satisfy,

And set unchangeably in order. So

                To pile them back, to cry,

Was hard, without lamely admitting how

It had not done so then, and could not now.

Depressing, perhaps, but as bold as it was when it first hit the shelves, over half a century ago. The poems are littered with yets and shoulds, the poems always stuck on ideas never quite being the same as reality. Recently, I read an interview with Michaela Coel, the writer and creator of the BBC’s I May Destroy You, where she said, “I describe the humour in this show and in life as an uninvited guest at a party.” Larkin’s poems of death and grief have a similar attitude. Even the bleakest of subjects are granted a dark levity, which only serves to magnify both their humanity and pain. Best enjoyed with bad weather, and time set aside to brood.

Levels of Life (2011) by Julian Barnes

In one of the saddest and strangest books ever published, Julian Barnes, amongst England’s best writers, gives a creative and heartfelt response to his wife Pat Kavanagh’s untimely passing after having been diagnosed with cancer a mere 37 days before her death, aged 68. The first section of the book covers Gaspard-Felix Tournachon, or Nadar, who pioneered aerial photography with the use of a hot-air balloon. Barnes writes that his mission was ‘to look at ourselves from afar, to make the subjective suddenly objective’, something that grief makes us long for – the ability to see the bigger picture, and so somehow diminish our own pain.

The middle section covers two other balloonists: English colonel Fred Burnaby, and French actress Sarah Bernhardt, who start a romance that ends up nowhere. This muses on love, and the idea of escaping to the clouds, away from human pain. Then, finally, the last section, entitled ‘The Loss of Depth’ , brings out the latent themes and ideas of the first two sections in an essay, memoir, on Barnes’ own grief. It is, like Riley’s work, deeply intellectual and full of clever constructs, but less academically written, and told with bitingly simple anecdotes that force you to sit back a little bit.

One in particular sticks with me. Barnes describes how, on the way home in a taxi, he did not have the courage to correct the driver who assumed his wife would be asleep by the time he got home. Instead, Barnes simply agreed and resolved to be silent, and choke down tears. This is emblematic of a bold matter-of-factness in the book. One line puts it simply, ‘What happiness is there in just the memory of happiness?’ Levels of Life shows the uniqueness of grief, and a humanist attitude that is, in the moment bleak, but, upon reflection, liberating.

Hamlet (1609) by William Shakespeare

If we take ‘grief’ to loosely mean behaviour after the death of a loved one, then Hamlet takes that theme and runs with it. The Prince of Denmark plunges into the famously catastrophic depths of uncertainty after his father dies, but soon returns as a ghost to tell Hamlet, alone, that he was murdered. Thus confirming, and crucially warranting, Hamlet’s hatred of his uncle, the tragedy is born.

But Hamlet’s anger is around before his father’s ghost’s message, and that instance is often the subject of debate – did he imagine the ghost to confirm his hatred, or was it really there? Shakespeare is often ambiguous, but ambiguity is a key factor of grief, a time where everything is unknown and uncertain. Hamlet must wrestle with his suspicions and try to deduce whether they are irrational reactions to his father’s death, the throws of grief – or correct conclusions, entrusted to him by his father’s soul. One of Shakespeare’s best, and most famous plays, Hamlet explores a grey area – the gaps left behind after someone dies.

How to be both (2014) by Ali Smith

This novel, published in halves that come in any old order, depending on which copy you buy, is about drawing parallels between disparate events, but also contains an incredible insight into grief, time, and language. In one half of the novel (the first half for me), fifteen-year old George has just lost her Mum and remembers her often. But Smith uses tenses to play with the idea of mourning, bringing the memories back to the present, and the present to the past, until eventually the time is unplaceable. This story takes place in both a trip to Italy with her mother, and her grief in Cambridge when her mother is dead. But really, it takes place all at the same time, and Smith is allied to ideas, language, and memories, rather than human trifles and dramas.

Experimental, mental, poetic, and funny, How to be both is unlike any other novel, or text, but the overall effect of its encouragement of the reader to try and spot the connections between characters and scenes is life-affirming. Much is left unsaid, and the novel jumps about and discusses its own structure a lot, which can be jarring – annoying, even. But in this chaos, a sort of sense emerges, and we the readers are those who are given the job of sifting it out. We make sense of the mess with George. We grieve alongside her. Ali Smith manages to textually reconstruct the process of grieving. Brainy and odd – a challenge, but worthwhile.

The Blind Assassin, (2000) by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood’s magnificent 20th Century-wide novel is about the now-elderly Iris Chase who, as she dies in relative seclusion in the town she was raised, her old family manor repurposed as a care home, writes her life story. Her sister Laura, an author, drove her car off a bridge as the Second World War ended, and Iris attempts, retrospectively, to give herself some answers. Alongside her memoir is Laura’s only novel about a woman and a sci-fi writer’s sexy, boundary-breaking romance, entitled ‘The Blind Assassin’, which has since become a feminist classic. Iris has lived in its and Laura’s shadow all her life.

The novel is similar to How to be both in that it invites the reader to undergo a journey of detection, as every symbol, metaphor, and conversation are coloured by the fact that, from the first sentence, we know Laura’s fate. All the way through, Laura’s strangeness and introversion are taken as signs of what is to come, and Iris’ narration and Laura’s novel seem to have within them unconscious clues, whose immediate scrutiny mirrors the process of reflection after the loss of a loved one. Iris’ narrative is also laden with grief and pain, excellently expressed by Atwood’s cynical prose – going shopping alone is a trial in itself. The Blind Assassin reveals its secrets about two-thirds of the way through, and so lets the readers grow ever closer to the truth, and closure. Long, but worth every page.

Wuthering Heights (1847) by Emily Brontë

Whilst many misconceptions about Wuthering Heights being a love story, a romance, or a straight-up Gothic classic prevail, the novel is, for one half at least, focused on grief and its impact on a community/family. In this novel, the past can never be left alone. Cathy’s ghost returns to haunt the Heights; Heathcliff vows vengeance on the next generation after her death, and their children live in the shadow of her life. Essentially, Wuthering Heights shows exactly what not to do in the aftermath of death.

In the oft-forgotten second volume of the novel, focusing on their children, grief engulfs Heathcliff completely. Slowly, grief takes hold and the grim, Gothic emptiness of the moors and Thrushcross Grange that Lockwood, the novel’s framing narrator, sees at the beginning starts to take shape. Decay and disrepair take over; her absence lives on.

Wuthering Heights defies categorisation, but the general focus in culture and readings on the first half of the text misses the points of the second: the longing, pain, and inability to escape the ghosts of the past. The first half is the history, the second half is the present, each trapped within the other. Like Smith, Atwood, and Riley, there is a focus on time and its persistence, but the novel is far more melodramatic (and entertaining) in its treatment of these ideas surrounding memory and temporalities.

Way ahead of its time.



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