Perhaps it’s fitting that today I’m showcasing books that made me ugly cry since I have cried every single day since Russia invaded Ukraine.
Everything about this war is evil, one-sided and wrong. And I think I’m going to keep on crying until the world is righted, although I’m not sure that will be in my lifetime. If you’re looking for a succinct analysis of where the world can go from here, I found this article to be excellent. You will notice that every single scenario accounted for leads to future uncertainty.
Even if you’re not crying now, I am apparently bound and determined to get you there. I’ve compiled a list of books that made me ugly cry, like snotty sobbing, going through boxes of tissue, eyes puffy and swollen so it’s hard to read the end. It’s not a coincidence that all of these are some of my top-rated books: a book that can access you at your core like that, that can turn your emotions inside out, is one worth reading. We read for empathy and compassion, and that is what we find at the heart of a book that touches us.
If you’re thinking I don’t need to cry anymore then I have a different book list for you: Books to soothe your soul. For a shot of calm and a boost of spirits, check that out.
As one would expect with heartbreaking books, almost all of these books deal with heavy subject matter. A common theme running through these books is a combination of loss and childhood, whether it’s through war, illness or violence. Sexual violence trigger warnings in Beartown and Room.
The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak
One of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read, and a very sensitive take on the German people during World War II. In one of the most startling uses of point of view I have ever seen, The Book Thief is written through the eyes of Death, and tells the life of Liesel in Nazi Germany.
By her brother’s graveside in 1939, Liesel finds The Gravedigger’s Handbook, and steals it. This begins her love affair with books, and her penchant to steal books wherever she can find them, including Nazi book-burnings. Liesel’s foster family puts themselves in grave danger when they hide a Jew in their basement, and life is irreparably broken apart by the horror of war.
Why The Book Thief broke my heart: The strength and courage of a German family to risk their lives to do what’s right, the compassion that exists even in the heart of darkness, and the indiscrimate killing of war that destroys everybody’s hopes and dreams.
One of the things I’ve always liked about The Book Thief is that it doesn’t demonize all Germans as evil during WWII. Things were complicated and scary, and sometimes everything changes so quickly you wonder what has happened, and how did you end up where you were. This kind of empathy and understanding is extremely important to keep in mind in this day and age. The acts which took place during WWII, and the acts which occur right now, were the results of power-hungry madmen. Let’s place the blame where it belongs.
Sarah’s Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay
Sarah’s Key is another World War II book that tore my heart right out of my chest. There are two storylines revolving around the Vel d’Hiv roundup in Paris. This hideous collaboration between the French government and the Nazis took place in 1942, where some 13,000 french jews were arrested, held in the Velodrome d’Hiver stadium, and eventually shipped out to concentration camps.
Sarah, 10 years old and Jewish in Nazi-occupied Paris, is taken by the police. Before she goes, she tells her little brother to hide, locking him in a secret compartment of their apartment to keep him safe. As she realizes the extent of the horror being unleashed by the Germans and her own government, she does everything she can to escape the Nazis to return to save her brother.
60 years later, an American journalist Julia is looking into this historical event that seemed to have largely been forgotten by the world – as well as the ties of her husband’s French family to the events that took place.
Sarah’s Key was the first time I had ever heard of the events of the Vel d’Hiv, and they are nauseating – also that so little is ever said about it.
Why Sarah’s Key broke my heart: The horror unleashed on everyday people, the appalling lack of humanity shown by the French government towards its own people, and the tragedies that ripped apart generations.
Room, by Emma Donoghue
A book about the love between a mother and son, resilient even through the darkest acts of humanity.
Jack, the five-year-old narrator, has never been outside of the single room cabin where he lives with Ma. Every so often Old Nick will visit, but Ma makes him hide in a closet until he’s gone.
Jack is funny, bright and sweet, a testament to the love and strength of Ma. While it is told through the understandably confused viewpoint of a child, the reader realizes that Ma is a young woman who was kidnapped and held captive by a man for years. She was impregnated with his child and gives birth to Jack, who she devotes literally everything to.
Her love for her son, and the lengths she goes to protect him from evil even though they are surrounded by it, is so overwhelming that I am getting teared up just thinking about it.
Why Room broke my heart: Ma’s ferocious love for her son undoes me every single time. Despite everything she lost, she devotes her life to protecting her child’s innocence. I found Room incredibly dark and disturbing, and yet there was such hope and love that abounds throughout.
The Forgetting Time, by Sharon Guskin
Five years ago one woman’s child disappears. Now, Janie is desperate to help her own son, a troubled four-year-old with mysterious knowledge and skills beyond his age, and a horrific fear of water. Janie knows he needs to get help when he begins begging to be returned to his other mother, the real one.
Anderson, an academic suffering from aphasia, becomes a laughingstock when he supports theories of children who remember past lives. Janie and Anderson’s paths become entangled as they do everything they can to help put Noah back together.
I have always found the concept of past lives to be fascinating, especially stories of children who possess knowledge they absolutely should not have. But the real focus of The Forgetting Time is on motherhood, and how to raise a child who rejects you for another. Janie is strong, resilient and willing to do whatever it takes to help him – even if it means losing him.
Why The Forgetting Time broke my heart: The book deals with losing children, a loss so vast it is unimaginable. Despite the horror that shows itself in the mystery that wraps around these lives, there is hope, too, of a place beyond this all, and a greater purpose. I loved this book and cried my heart out.
Small Great Things, by Jodi Picoult
I’m not sure I’ve ever read a Jodi Picoult book without collapsing into tears, but this book stayed with me for a very long time afterwards. Ruth, an experienced labour and delivery nurse, is told she is not allowed to touch a newborn child because the parents are white supremacists and she is black. When the child goes into cardiac arrest in the nursery, only Ruth is there. And she hesitates.
The resulting death of a child becomes a high-profile courtcase, where large-scale issues are played out in a media circus. Ruth is both horrified and indignant when her white lawyer tells her she cannot mention race at the trial. Grieving parents need to come to terms with their own beliefs, and where they come from.
Why Small Great Things broke my heart: This book is extremely heavy. At the heart of it, it is about the loss of a child. But it’s also about breaking apart harmful belief systems. Picoult creates a sensitive portrayal of every character in this book so that I felt sorrow and understanding for each and every character.
Beartown, by Fredrik Backman
Beartown is a book about sport, but really about people, as individuals and as a community. The tale Backman spins is gripping, timely and hits its mark masterfully.
The fate of backwoods Beartown rests on the shoulders of a few teenage boys who have a shot at winning the national hockey semi-finals, but everything falls apart when one boy sexual assaults a girl. And she says something about it. If you have lived in our world for any number of years, you can probably imagine what the fallout looks like.
This is a book about a town that did its worse, then tried to do better. It’s a book about the heartbreak of being a parent because we cannot protect them. It’s a book about hockey culture, or sport culture more generally, and how that gives a type of power that should not belong to anybody, let along confused teenage boys. It’s about loyalty to a team, and what principles you’re willing to sacrifice for that tribe.
But most of all Beartown is about courage: the thousand simple acts of courage it takes to bring an entire town back from the abyss.
Why Beartown broke my heart: It broke my heart because it is a situation that keeps on repeating itself, over and over again. And until our culture and our society changes how it views privilege, it will continue. But it also made me cry because of the ways that people were brave; especially when it means standing up to people you love, respect, and have so very much to lose.
Gold, by Chris Cleave
Gold gutted me entirely, about two young women who are friends and rivals in national track cycling.
Kate and Zoe met at nineteen; now at thirty-two, the women are facing their last and biggest race: the 2012 Olympics. Each wants desperately to win gold, and each has more than a medal to lose. Kate’s dream seems to be on life support, as her eight-year-old is facing her own battle against leukemia.
Zoe’s compulsive need to win at any cost has more than once threatened her friendship with Kate; and her own sanity. Will her obsession, and the advantage she has over a harried, anguished mother, sever the bond they have shared for more than a decade?
Chris Cleave is incredibly talented, and I know he’s not afraid to go for the hard emotional punch, so I spent most of the time holding my breath, waiting for the most horrible thing, and then completely losing my shit when it happens.
Why Gold broke my heart: Gold is about love and sacrifice, and life. It’s about priorities, and regretting the choices we’ve made, but trying to find ways towards redemption.
Happy crying, beautiful people! I wish you all health and safety, and that we might all dream of a better future.