Bittersweet symphony

Pauline Wong
Pauline Wong12/11/2020 6:0 AM GMT+08  • 7 min read
Bittersweet symphony
Here are some of the best, most heartbreaking, yet ultimately uplifting books
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It is the end of a year that has upended the world and changed life as we know it. There has been loss, there has been grief, yet love thrives through it all. For those among us who’ve lost loved ones, who are far apart from their significant others, or who will be unable to hug our families this festive season, love is alive, but tinged with the bittersweet. Here, we select some of the best books to read that navigate the love, joy, pain and sorrow we have experienced this year

Normal People by Sally Rooney

It begins like every high school romance does: The popular jock, who falls in love with the nerdy ‘ugly duckling’. However, this is where all the similarities end between every high school book ever and Sally Rooney’s brilliant, heartbreaking and entirely unpretentious book.

The Irish author, whose debut novel Conversations with Friends was widely praised, takes on the complex entanglements of love, friendship and class in this slim volume of a mere 276 pages. It follows the story of Connell and Marianne, who pretend not to know each other at school.

He is a popular star of the school soccer team, while she is lonely and unpopular, proud but vulnerable. Connell comes to pick his mother up from her housekeeping job at Marianne’s house, a strange connection grows between the two and they eventually fall into a secret relationship, divided by seemingly insurmountable differences between their social statuses, both at school and in life. However, theirs is a love not easily forgotten, although fragile and easily broken by misunderstanding.

Over the years, through college and life, they dance around each other, neither willing to admit that in each other, they have found their ‘person’. The ending is ambiguous, leaving it up to the reader to keenly feel a sense of loss, but also closure.

The story is not one that would break any boundaries, but Rooney’s sparse prose conceals a sort of delicate tenderness as you find yourself drawn in by the push-and-pull between Connell and Marianne. It is written well, told in a sort of inner monologue that eschews quotations, thus blurring the lines between what is said, and what is thought. A TV series of the same name, produced by BBC and Hulu, was released in April to critical acclaim.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

British-American young adult fiction author Patrick Ness has a way of writing that draws you in, and it is the same with his book, A Monster Calls. While it is marketed as young adult fiction, it does tackle some very serious topics of death and guilt.

In A Monster Calls, 13-year-old Conor O’Malley one night awakens from the same nightmare he has been experiencing for the past few months. Just after midnight, a voice calls to him from outside his bedroom window, which overlooks an old church and its graveyard sheltered by a yew tree.

Walking to the window, Conor meets the monster who called, a towering mass of branches and leaves formed in a human shape from the yew tree. The monster is intrigued that Conor is not afraid of it and insists that Conor summoned it. The monster says that it will tell Conor three true stories, after which Conor must tell a story of his own, and if it is not true, the monster will eat him.

It is at first, something akin to the One Thousand and One Nights, until we discover that Conor’s mother is undergoing chemotherapy and has been afflicted with terminal cancer for the past year, leaving Conor isolated and alone, bullied in school and ignored by both his cold and aloof father and grandmother. The monster insists on the truth from Conor, but even Conor is not prepared to admit the truth: (spoiler alert) that he wants his mother to die, so as to spare her the pain.

The Phone Box at the Edge of the World by Laura Imai Messina

When Yui loses her mother and daughter in the 2011 Tohoku tsunami in Japan, she wonders how she will ever carry on. Grappling with grief, she wonders how her life will go on. Day after day, her work as a host on a radio show reminds her of her loss. Yet, in the face of this unthinkable loss, life must somehow continue.

Then one day, on a programme discussing the tsunami, she hears about a man who has an old disused telephone box in his garden. There, those who have lost loved ones find the strength to speak to them and begin to come to terms with their grief. As news of the phone box spreads, people will travel there from miles around.

Soon Yui will make her own pilgrimage to the phone box, too. But once there she cannot bring herself to speak into the receiver. Then she finds Takeshi, a bereaved husband whose own daughter has stopped talking after her mother was taken in the tsunami. Yui strikes up an odd friendship with Takeshi, two souls torn apart and finding comfort in each other’s loss. Messina, who has been living in Japan for the last 15 years, works between Tokyo and Kamakura, where she lives with her Japanese husband and two children.

Her writing is nuanced, poetic, and powerful. Despite the subject matter, it never veers into the maudlin or miserable.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

Ove is a curmudgeon. He is grumpy and uninterested in the goings-on outside his home, but he finds himself dragged out of his solitary existence by Iranian immigrant Parvaneh, her Swedish husband Patrick and their two children, who are moving into the house across the street.

People call Ove the bitter neighbor from hell, but behind his gruff exterior, there is a real sadness plaguing Ove — his wife has died just six months ago from cancer, and he’s being forced to retire after working at the same company for 43 years. He is lost. However, Parvaneh and her family proves to be his solace, ultimately showing him that there is life after grief.

A Grief Observed by CS Lewis

British author CS Lewis is perhaps most well-loved and recognised for his Chronicles of Narnia series of books. Considered a classic children’s book, the Narnia series was ground-breaking for its time, with themes of loss, betrayal, faith and courage.

However, A Grief Observed is perhaps Lewis’ most polarising work yet. He was not only an author, but also a lay theologian, who wrote many books on Christianity and the exploration of faith. In A Grief Observed, which he wrote under a pseudonym (NW Clerk) to avoid being identified at first, four notebooks used by Lewis to vent and explore his grief are compiled. He illustrates the everyday trials of his life without his wife, Joy, who died from cancer just three years after their marriage, and explores fundamental questions of faith and theodicy.

The book questions the nature of grief and his anger and confusion at God for the death of his wife. A deeply personal, yet clinical book, it is a fascinating and sometimes brutally frank read into the process of grieving the loss of a loved one.

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