Isn’t it strange how a having a good old cry can often make you feel better? So while picking up a tear-jerker might sound like a downer, remember that immersing yourself in a sad story can be like therapy.
We asked Australian writer Fiona Higgins to list the books that make her cry. Fiona Higgins is the author of Wife on the Run (2014), The Mothers’ Group (2012) and Love in the Age of Drought (2009). She lives in Bali, works in Australian philanthropy and is a mother of three children under eight. When she needs a good cry (which, most recently, occurred when she found her mobile phone in the spin cycle), these are the books Fiona turns to…
1. The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
There are certain books my three children have learned NOT to ask Mum to read before bedtime, or risk maternal tears soaking the pillow. ‘The Giving Tree’ by Shel Silverstein is one of these. Even the opening line gets me going – ‘Once there was a tree, and she loved a little boy.’ The story revolves around a self-sacrificing tree that gives unconditionally to fulfil avaricious human needs. A touching allegory of humanity’s relationship with our ever-generous environment.
2. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
It was never going to be upbeat: after all, it’s narrated by Death during the Holocaust. Apart from being a compelling piece of historical fiction, the book explores the power of words to heal and redeem – Lisel, the central character, learns to read and uses her newfound skill to create a safe space for herself and others during the horrors of World War II. A fascinating, experimental foray into fiction that I couldn’t resist, and had me bawling aloud in my bedroom by the end.
3. The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
The books I love and return to invariably involve characters I care about deeply. No more so than the four main characters of The English Patient: Count Ladislaus de Almásy, Hana, Kip and David Caravaggio, all of whom are grappling with their pasts in some way. The story’s wartime setting delivers an emotional rollercoaster – plane accidents, thieving, spying, bomb disposal, illicit love affairs – some of which had me weeping on public transport. A poignant work in which Ondaatje is unafraid to drop bombs, literally and figuratively. Of Hiroshima, Caravaggio observes, “They would never have dropped such a bomb on a white nation.” Ouch. Sob.
4. Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
Oh! More rabid, uncontrollable hysteria with this ending. A marvellous book for the Easter holidays, preferably enjoyed with copious cups of fragrant tea and slivers of dark chocolate. A mystical Mexican tale of star-crossed lovers Pedro and Tita, who is condemned by turn-of-the-century mores to look after her mother until she dies. In an unpalatable effort to stay close to Tita, Pedro marries her sister Rosaura, and watches Tita from a distance for the next twenty-two years. Sigh. The vintage format, complete with mouth-watering recipes, is a wistful touch.
5. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
A pall of foreboding and despair blankets this narrative, after a cataclysmic event destroys the Earth and a father and son struggle to survive. Much of the story involves the pair scavenging for food and other life-saving necessities, or avoiding post-apocalyptic pitfalls like pillaging cannibals who range across the cold wasteland. Much of this is scary, not sad. And yet, the redemptive power of the father-son relationship depicted (Mum has already committed suicide) is tear-inducing, and haunted me for years to come.
6. Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
Thomas Hardy is a literary gloom merchant, perfect for the melancholic in all of us. This is my favourite of his works, possibly because it is slightly more upbeat than some others. (Like Jude the Obscure, a portrait of a fine young working class man’s spiral into ill-fortune, and the rabid arbitrariness of the whole damn world. And I refuse to discuss Tess of the D’Urbervilles, because I can’t without choking up.) Far from the Madding Crowd is the story of witty, intelligent Bathsheba Everdene, who somehow manages to marry the worst of three suitors (not her cleverest choice). The best candidate, Gabriel Oak, a kind and quietly-spoken shepherd, is rebuffed at every turn. The book’s ending, while not unremittingly tragic, is certainly not optimistic. I always weep in Hardy novels, or feel like throwing a brick through the nearest window.
7. Tough Boris by Mem Fox
Another children’s book appears in this list because, hey, it’s that time of life for me. Tough Boris took me by surprise because I’d come to expect other things from Mem Fox, such as Where is the Green Sheep? and Possum Magic (which only really evoke tears after the millionth request to read them). Tough Boris is the tender story of Boris von der Borch, a cliché of a pirate (scruffy, fearsome and brutal) whose demeanour alters when his faithful parrot dies, and he is offered compassion and comfort by a violin-playing cabin boy. (What? Yes!) Evocative illustrations offer a heart-warming parallel story against very spare text. I can’t read this one without sniffling.
8. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
This was a disturbing read before I had children, and is heart-breaking now that I do. Fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon narrates the story of her rape and murder in a devastating tale which explores a family’s response to grief, while also responding to the whodunit? imperative. The supernatural element of the book left me cold (it’s just not my thing), but Susie’s musings from the afterlife about the family and friends she is ‘watching’ as they fall apart – then slowly begin to heal again – made me weep, repeatedly. A painful read.
9. Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare
I do not routinely find myself consuming Shakespearean tragedies; it’s one of those pre-children indulgences about which I sometimes fantasise. But on the odd occasion I do, there’s always so much to cry about: the twin suicides of Romeo and Juliet; the hanging of Cordelia, daughter of King Lear; the slaying of Desdemona by Othello, followed by his own remorseful suicide. But it’s one of the lesser-known tragedies, Titus Andronicus, which makes me howl with outrage. The horrifying death of Lavinia seems emblematic of gender-based violence across history and today – she is tossed into a pit and raped by Chiron and Demetrius, who then cut off her tongue and hands in order to ensure she does not disclose their crime. When Titus, her father, learns of the rape, he murders Lavinia by breaking her neck. Cannot speak for sobbing, sorry.
10. A Fortunate Life by A.B. Facey
A sentimental Aussie pick that always gets my tear ducts flowing. This moving memoir is set on the Western Australian frontier at the beginning of the 20th century and describes, in plain language, the life of the author – first deserted by his mother at two-years-old, then enduring extraordinary hardship as a child working in poorly-paid, low-skill jobs. Facey missed out on a decent education, but was fortunate to survive Gallipoli, only to endure the loss of his farm during the depression, his son during World War II and his wife after sixty years of happy marriage. (Handkerchief, anyone?) The book reflects the beauty and brutality of Australia, and the rich textures of so-called ‘ordinary’ lives. The final pages left me feeling like I’d lost a cherished friend.
11. The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
The sort of debut novel of which most authors can only dream. Part science-fiction, part romance, part existentialist meditation (very difficult to pull off), the book is lyrical, complex and evocative. Once I suspended disbelief about the central premise – a man being afflicted by a rare genetic condition that causes him to time-travel unpredictably across the course of his relationship with his wife – I surrendered to the work’s magnetism. For all its otherworldliness, Henry and Clare’s relationship is deeply human and real. I finished the book (and the tissues) one late night during my undergraduate university exams and, consequently, almost failed Philosophy 101.
12. One Day by David Nicholls
The blurb says it all: Twenty years, two people, one day. When Harry Met Sally on steroids, but without the happy ending. Em and Dex are believable and relatable, and their character development is greatly enhanced by Nicholls’ well-constructed dialogue. I found myself heavily invested in their relationship, even though I didn’t like Dex very much at all. A humorous and heart-breaking exploration of human relationships, missed opportunities, and the ‘sliding doors’ of life. After that ending, I keened for a good twenty minutes. But then I got up and did the dishes because I didn’t really like Dex.
What books make you cry?
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