10 books that are harrowing

10-booksWe’ve all been there. Read a book and wept buckets over it. Or emerged from the story feeling completely shattered, as if the world has slightly tilted on its axis and we’re left standing on shaky ground.

I love reading books that make me think, that take me out of my comfortable existence and leave a lasting impression. Harrowing books, ones that are slightly distressing to read for one reason or another — maybe because the characters do terrible things, lead  distressing lives or are confronted by extraordinarily heartbreaking circumstances — reveal the power of literature to move, transform and educate us in ways we may never have expected when we first cracked open the pages.

Maybe it’s the masochist in me, but I truly love books, whether fiction or non-fiction, that leave me feeling slightly devastated when I get to the last page. As we all know, reading is a deeply personal experience, and sometimes it’s nice to have almost tangible evidence of the journeys we’ve experienced in our mind’s eye.

While I realise not everyone likes a harrowing read, sometimes it’s good to shake things up a bit. If you want some help deciding what might be worth a try, here’s my top 10 harrowing books (arranged in alphabetical order by book title):

‘A Long Long Way’ by Sebastian Barry

There’s nothing like a war novel to take the reader out of their comfort zone and into an almost unimaginable world of death, horror and destruction. A Long, Long Way, shortlisted for the 2005 Booker Prize, is an unbearably sad read about an Irish soldier caught between two wars: the Great War and the Irish War of Independence. I read most of the book with a lump in my throat. But while the scenes on the battlefield are stomach-churningingly gruesome and harrowing, this is a beautifully written book that is also deeply moving.

‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ by Erich Maria Remarque

Like A Long, Long Way, this is another book set during the Great War, but this one is told from a German perspective. The brilliance of this book is that it does not romanticise war in any way. It shows in clear, concise language what trench warfare was really like, and how young, innocent and patriotic young men became transformed by their experiences — and not necessarily for the better. Above all, All Quiet on the Western Front exposes the utter futility and pointlessness of war. I came away from this book feeling completely bereft, distressed by the knowledge that we don’t seem to have learnt a thing. Who says history does not repeat?

‘An Evil Cradling’ by Brian Keenan (not reviewed on blog)

This is the true story of Belfast-born Brian Keenan’s capture by Shi’ite militiamen when he was a teacher in Beirut in the 1980s. He was kept hostage for four-and-a-half years. I read the book not long after publication, back in 1991, and I remember it having a strong, long-lasting impact on me. How one man could survive such brutal treatment for so long without going completely insane was simply beyond my comprehension.

‘Cries Unheard: The Story of Mary Bell’ by Gitta Sereny (not reviewed on blog)

This non-fiction book is probably the most profound true story I have ever read. It changed my entire outlook on child criminals, how they should be treated and who should be held responsible. It looks at the case of Mary Bell, an 11-year-old girl who was convicted of the manslaughter of two young boys (aged 4 and 3) in 1968. Sereny, an amazingly talented journalist who has devoted most of her life to exploring the reasons why people do bad, immoral things, interviews Mary as an adult about her experiences. It is a deeply chilling, life-changing read. In my opinion it should be compulsory reading for every parent, teacher and social worker.

‘Due Preparations for the Plague’ by Janette Turner Hospital

Anyone who has a fear of flying should probably not read this novel by Australian author Janette Turner Hospital. The central focus of the story is the hijack of an Air France plane in which the terrorists keep ten hostages as a negotiating card. It’s a truly electrifying read, one that resulted in the hair on the back of my neck standing on end on more than one occasion. It certainly fed my paranoia for awhile there, and to this day I start to feel on edge whenever any plane I’m in sits on the tarmac longer than it should…

‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ by Lionel Shriver (not reviewed on blog)

Is there anyone out there who hasn’t read this book and not felt absolutely devastated by the end? This one had such a profound effect on me when I read it in 2005 that I wasn’t able to write a review. I just didn’t know how to put into words the deep impact the storyline had had on me. It wasn’t the horrific Columbine-style school massacre that evoked such strong feelings, rather it was the whole nature versus nurture debate and whether career women can, in fact, make good mothers. Reading groups must have a field day with this one!

The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe (not reviewed on blog)

For a long time, I regarded The Butcher Boy as my favourite book. I think this was mainly due to the fact that up until that point (I was about 23) I had never read anything like it: there’s very limited punctuation, little separation between dialogue and thought, and the narrator, Francie Brady, is a young boy who is slightly unhinged and commits murder. I saw the movie and thought it was impressive, but it was nowhere near as harrowing as the book. As much as I admire McCabe, I don’t think he’s ever written anything to surpass the remarkable brilliance and dark, disturbing nature of novel which provides a fascinating insight into the mind of a killer. I still think it should have won the 1992 Booker Prize for which it was shortlisted.

‘The Barracks’ by John McGahern

I have a literary crush on the late John McGahern. This book, his first novel published in 1963, is about a young married Irish woman who discovers she has breast cancer but tries to hide it from those she loves. It is an absolutely heart-breaking read — although punctuated by humour — and it left such an impact I still think about it almost 18 months later. I was so impressed by this one, slim volume I went out and bought McGahern’s entire back catalogue.

‘Tatty’ by Christine Dwyer Hickey

Anyone would think the Irish have a monopoly on rotten childhoods — The Butcher Boy (see above), Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha and MJ Hyland’s Carry Me Down come to mind — but this one  is the first I’ve read from a female perspective. The narrator is a little girl called Tatty, who is caught in the middle of an unravelling marriage between her beloved but reckless father and her depressed, alcoholic mother. Yes, not exactly happy reading. But I loved this book and felt completely bereft when it ended, almost as if Tatty was a real person whom I was desperate to protect…

‘The Endless Steppe’ by Esther Hautzig (not reviewed on blog)

This is a real blast from the past. I read this book when I was 10. My dad brought it for me and I still remember him explaining it was a true story about one girl’s life during the Second World War. It was the true story aspect that got to me. I had recently read Anne Frank, so I guess this was a natural progression, given it’s about 10-year-old Esther Rudomin, who was taken prisoner by the Russians in 1941 with her mother and grandmother. They were shipped by cattle car to a forced-labour camp in Siberia, hence the book’s title. Sounds harrowing for a kid to read, but it taught me a lot about the Holocaust, a subject that has fascinated, enthralled and appalled me ever since.

So, what did you think of my choices? Are there any particular books you’d recommend as a harrowing read?

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16 thoughts on “10 books that are harrowing

  1. I can’t bring myself to read We Need To Talk About Kevin. I just can’t. I was going to do it last year and then I got pregnant and now with A, I’m definitely in no mood to read about a son that goes off the rails. It’s been recommended to me by so many people, though, that someday I’ll have to get over myself and do it.

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  2. Richard Yates tends to be pretty devastating, and if you haven’t worked your way through McGahern’s output yet then Amongst Women will have a similar effect…

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  3. Dilani, that book is on my wish list, I have only heard good things about it.
    Kinuk, I’m sure you’d find it fascinating. Essentially this woman doesn’t really “bond” with her child and makes no effort to redress the situation, preferring to concentrate on her career which involves a lot of travel. I doubt you would have much in common with her!
    Joy, you’re welcome. Let me know if you read any of these books…
    John, yes, I read Amongst Women last year — and loved it. The only McGahern I have left to read is The Pornographer and I keep putting it off, simply because I don’t want to be in the situation where I don’t have any more McGahern novels to read… I truly think he is a genius.

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  4. I just finished We Need to Talk About Kevin and harrowing is a great word to describe the experience.
    I found Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier incredibly harrowing in a different way. It is a beautiful but devastating book. I cried buckets at the end!

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  5. You know I agree with you about the Mary Bell book. Really opens your mind and makes you ‘understand’ a little better… I remember you loving ‘The Butcher Boy’. I need to read some of these books you’ve listed. Love a good ‘harrowing’ novel. Thes are the type of books that stay with you.

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  6. I seem to have read quite a few harrowing books this year! Stasiland, Stuart: A Life Backwards and Elie Wiesel’s Night were all harrowing in different ways. The latter was definitely the most chilling account of the Holocaust I have read. I would definitely agree with your inclusion of We Need To Talk About Kevin. Stayed with me for a very long time after I read it. Would love to read the Gitta Sereny book.

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  7. Great list, and yes, I like the term “harrowing” as well. There’s at least two nonfiction books I can think of right off the bat: “A Rip in Heaven,” by Jeanine Cummins, about the murders of her cousins and the police trying to pin it on her other cousin–unbelievable–and Mikal Gilmore’s “Shot in the Heart.” A lot of true crime falls in the harrowing category, of course, but those two stand out as literary as well as intense reads.

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  8. Nonan, oh yes, I read Shot in the Heart many years ago. This was because The Executioner’s Song, about Gary Gilmore (Mikal’s brother), was one of the most amazing non-fiction books I’d ever read.

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  9. Probably my most harrowing read was “The Fortunes of Richard Mahony” by Henry Handel Richardson, a woman writing under a male pseudonym, sorta like George Eliot. This book was written in 1929. It is about a young family in Australia emigrated from Ireland. There is a father and mother and two little children. The young father is a doctor who not-so-slowly goes insane because of syphillis. The young family is ostracized, and of course the doctor loses all his patients. It’s considered a classic in Australia, and if you like Patrick White, you will like this novel, believe it or not.

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  10. OMG, The Endless Steppe is amazing! I read it when I was about 10 or 11. It was a random book that I chose from my school library and I was completely blown away by how good it was. This is the first time that I have ever seen this book being given a mention, in nearly 20 years! You made my day!

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  11. I believe you should include The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks. This is The Butcher Boy’s dark twin. Vale Iain.

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