Why read a grim book?

By Caitlin Kelly

There are happy books and there are books you think…really?

I’m expected to get through the whole thing?

There are books, whether novels or non-fiction, about alcoholism, drug use, family abuse, that can feel like a real slog. The subject is undeniably depressing, frightening, even terrifying and most of its characters are people you would never want to meet.

I admit, I didn’t enjoy reading a huge 2018 best-seller, Educated, by Tara Westover, about the terrible family she grew up with, eventually escaping to a better life. I was (however unfairly) impatient with her for staying so long in an environment that was so awful. An earlier best-seller, also by a white woman, Jeanette Wells, was 2005’s The Glass Castle. But I did enjoy a Canadian book like this, North of Normal.

One of the best books I read last year was also emotionally difficult, In The Dream House, by Carmen Maria Machado, a memoir of lesbian domestic abuse. Now that sounds appealing! But her writing is extraordinary and it’s a great book.

I recently read the 2020 Booker Prize winner, Shuggie Bain. As I described it to a friend, a fellow journalist, she said she just couldn’t do it. I found that interesting as journalism, with our decades of exposure to some very tough stories, tends to harden us somewhat.

I did enjoy it, but it’s rough — a young boy, Shuggie, living in Glasgow poverty with an older brother and sister and a severely alcoholic mother, abandoned by his father.

I also found elements of it painful and hard to read because my mother was also an alcoholic, and the novel is filled with his hopeless hope that someday, someday, she won’t be — a fantasy painfully familiar to any child of an alcoholic.

The author, Douglas Stuart, survived a very similar childhood, so his ability to turn such grim fare into a compelling novel is impressive. And his background isn’t the standard trajectory of writing classes, workshops and an MFA — he worked in fashion design for decades and was writing it while working as the senior director of design for Banana Republic.

From Wikipedia:

In a conversation with 2019 Booker winner Bernardine Evaristo on 23 November, livestreamed as a Southbank Centre event, Stuart said: “One of my biggest regrets I think is that growing up so poor I almost had to elevate myself to the middle class to turn around to tell a working-class story.”[22] Discussing the “middle-class” publishers’ rejections he had received for Shuggie Bain, he told Evaristo: “Everyone was writing these really gorgeous letters. They were saying ‘Oh my god this will win all of the awards and it’s such an amazing book and I have never read anything like that, but I have no idea how to market it’.”[22] Stuart said in a 2021 conversation with the Duchess of Cornwall that winning the Booker Prize transformed his life.[36]

But I also liked a very tough book, Triomf, from 1994, by Marlene van Niekirk, the most celebrated Afrikaans author of South Africa. It’s dark as hell; the family she features even includes incest.

What, then, is the appeal of such books?

For some, voyeurism….thank God it’s not me!

For some, curiosity, having never experienced poverty and/or alcoholism, or life in a cult in the woods.

I hope, for some, as a way to develop or deepen empathy for people whose lives are wholly different from their own, as — in non-fiction — the storytellers have clearly been able to survive and thrive despite a really difficult earlier life. It becomes a narrative of resilience, not despair.

I admit, I cried hard at the end of Shuggie Bain, as it brought up a lot of unexpressed and painful memories of my own experiences of being “parentified”, always worrying about my mother’s health and safety instead of my own, (even though we were not, thank God, poor), and tied to a woman who was unable or unwilling to create a larger social safety net for herself. So reading a similar book can be painful but also cathartic — someone else really gets it. And, God forbid, someone else had it much worse.

Do you ever read books like this?

Which ones?

How have they left you?

NOTE: I refuse to use Amazon for any purchases, (I loathe its labor policies), so links to these books will not connect to their site.

20 thoughts on “Why read a grim book?

  1. I don’t read these types of book, I don’t want to add to the knowledge of what life can be like I suppose. I want to read to feel the excitement of a story. Or to feel the wonder expressed in a poem. I think poetry works better in my head, more image or idea based.

    1. I get it! I was asked recently if I ever read books that include violence against women (part of the topic of my first book) and I said oh hell no! I won’t even watch horror films or read about it.

      1. David Holzman

        Good lord! I feel the same way.

        As you probably know, I LOVED Stephen King’s 11/22/1963 and his book on writing. I tried one of his horror books over the holidays. I did not finish it. I did not like being in that book.

  2. I enjoyed “North of Normal”. I go on binges with books like this, looking perhaps for some normalcy for my own experience, or tidbits to help me understand. One book that had that effect for me was Donald D’Haine’s: “A Father’s Touch”. He writes about what happens to families in situations of abuse (in his case, pedophilia) and his words struck a chord that has stayed with me. http://www.fatherstouch.com/

  3. I saw the title and I was like, “Did she write this for me?” Turns out, the books you were talking about are different than the ones I tend to think about when I think “grim books.” However, in my experience, some of these books are therapeutic. When the pressures of the world are too much, a grim book full of horrors can either make you feel better about your life or it can help you process those dark things in the world. In the latter case, it can be helpful to see someone go through what you went through, even cathartic, especially if there’s a happy ending.
    That being said, there is also the appeal of a challenge and pushing the envelope, especially in this genre. The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum is a prime example of this, and it’s so grim, it would make the books you list above seem child-friendly!

    1. I know that you love horror. It is not something I enjoy for a lot of reasons.

      One other element of these books, at best, is that FINALLY the main character (in fiction) and the narrator in non-fiction get the hell OUT of their nightmare and into a much happier life.

  4. I have read ‘the glass castle’ as well as ‘north of normal’ which I believe you may have recommended at one time. my daughter wanted me to read ‘educated’ but I found I couldn’t put myself through that again at the time, but am open to these kind of books when the time is right.

  5. David Holzman

    I can’t remember reading any like that. I have become a much more avid book reader than I was prior to the pandemic. But I haven’t gotten into any “grim” books–except a Stephen King book, Mr. Mercedes, which I tried because I loved his 11/22/1963 (read it three times, and then a fourth in Nov. 2016) and I really liked his book on writing. But I didn’t finish Mr. Mercedes. Lots of bios, including a new JFK book, which was terrific because it drilled down deeper than any of the others I’ve read, and some nonfiction… I feel better when I’m getting into a good book.

  6. lynnblin8356

    Shuggie Bain was one of my two favourite reads of 2021. It is fiction at its very best. That Stuart decided to write it as fiction was/is an important element for me. Unlike memoir ( i.e Educated) that recounts the writer’s life, revealing only the writer, and tends to be a tiny bit manipulative ) great fiction will reveal something of the reader to the reader themselves. The portrait of Shuggie is a portrait of resistance and love. It is also devastating. – the weight placed upon the feeble shoulders of others – the carers , shakes you to the bone. But it is so beautifully written, without an ounce of manipulation and gives such a resounding voice to the voiceless that it is destined to become a classic. It a book I will be going back to again and again. I think Stuart has the greatness of Dickens. You come out of your reading experience a different person. It’s the kind of reading I crave.

  7. I’ve read A Glass Castle and Educated. I just finished reading “A Good Wife” by Samra Zafar, pushed into an early marriage and trapped in a cycle of domestic abuse. But I would not call it grim. It’s a story of isolation, yearning for education, but it’s also a story of immense bravery and courage.

  8. I loved “A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khaleed Hosseini and “Angela’s Ashes” by Frank McCourt but I also loved ‘A Glass Castle” so apparently I like the grim stories but not because I like grim but more because of the emotion they draw from me. I lived such a sheltered life as a child, this is a way to see not everyone had the idyllic childhood I had. Books like these make me weep openly and for some reason, I associate that with good writing.

    1. Interesting.

      My childhood was privileged financially but emotionally chaotic. So I seek some validation from these memoirs…. but when they are REALLY dark, I don’t.

      I loved the Patrick Melrose novels ( WHEW, speaking of dark) and they are the thinly disguised version of Edward St. Aubyn’s own life.

  9. What I can’t deal with are books with no heart, if everything is grim and everyone is awful I have a hard time sticking it out – fic and non-fic alike. I need to care about someone.

    1. Yes! The problem I have with some of these is that they are unrelenting — the Patrick Melrose novels are (for me) worth it, but the one centered on his drug addiction while holed up in a $$$$ NYC hotel? No. The key to Shuggie Bain, for me, is Shuggie — whose hope alone is worth it.

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