Maybe it’s because I work with words for a living, but I have a terrible memory when it comes to most books I’ve read. That said, I’ll always remember those that made me cry. Here are five books that had me in floods of tears (often more than once, and often in public – much to the embarrassment of those around me).
We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver, 2013
If I ever think I’m having a tough week, I think of the dreadful existence of the protagonist in this book (or the lead character in anything by Lionel Shriver for that matter). The story sits in the mucky aftermath of a high school shooting in America, primarily from the perspective of the assailant’s mother. Reading it made me think a lot about guilt, blame, the folly of pride, the things we hold on to (but should really let go of) and, of course, the unspoken anxieties of the maternal experience (from both sides of the coin).
Sodden Downstream by Brannavan Gnanalingam, 2017
This short novel by one of Kiwi literature’s rising stars is an eye-opening critique of the refugee experience in New Zealand, a country touted as ‘green, clean and pure’. That said, the author also manages to capture the selfless, non-judgmental nature of the Kiwi spirit on an individual level (which is a big part of why I’m proud to call NZ my home). The story follows Sita, a Tamil Sri Lankan refugee as she battles one of Wellington’s wild storms to try to get across the capital city to her cleaning job (roads are closed, public transport has shut down – but she’s been told by her boss that she’ll lose her job if she doesn’t make it). It’s an odyssey disguised as a novella.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo, 2012
In this non-fiction work, Pulitzer Prize winner Katherine Boo reports on three years in the lives of a group of families living in a makeshift settlement near Mumbai airport – with a focus on Abdul, a young boy who works tirelessly as a rubbish sorter. I cried with frustration while reading this – angered as corruption stands in the way of almost every turn Abdul tries to take, and greed of ‘the haves’ (relatively) treads all over his hard work. There’s no happy ending, but you do learn more about people with an almost limitless well of hope against all odds.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, 2016
I ugly cried as I finished the final chapters of this memoir. But, actually, as I stepped away from the book I realised it had left me lighter as a human, less scared of death, more accepting of the fact that ‘what will be, will be’. For a book to do that is, I think, quite extraordinary. The story is written by a neurosurgeon who is diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer at 36 – and Paul’s perspective as he faces death has stayed with me. You often hear the self-help trope to ‘live in the moment’, but this book hammers that home in a meaningful manner.
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, 2005
It’s hard to believe I read this more than a decade ago: the emotion behind Joan Didion’s account of the year her husband of 40 years passed away while her daughter was on life support feels lodged right in my throat, ready to make me cry again. I hadn’t met my beloved husband when I read this – but now, seven years into my own marriage, I imagine it would be almost too hard for me to read such a piercing account of a grieving spouse. As she writes in the book: “A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty.”
Nyree McFarlane is features editor at The National