Have you ever read a novel you really like, but at the same time found it painful to read? Such is the case with The Hate U Give.
Brief interlude: I appeared once again on the “Tea, Toast & Trivia” show hosted by Rebecca Budd (aka “Clanmother”), the great and engaging Canadian podcaster/blogger. We discussed libraries! Link near the end of this post.
Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give offers a riveting story, superb writing, crackling dialogue, a strong feeling of authenticity, and more. But the 2017 novel — which Ms. Thomas (pictured above) wrote while still in her 20s — is very upsetting because it hinges around a white police officer shooting an unarmed African-American teen in the back, killing him. Eerily similar to this month’s tragedy of an actual white Wisconsin cop criminally putting seven bullets into the back of Black dad Jacob Blake, who is now paralyzed from the waist down. Not an isolated incident, of course, as it’s heartbreakingly, infuriatingly common for racist white American cops to do that sort of thing.
We hear about those incidents often in the news and on social media, so also getting immersed in such a situation in fiction is not easy to take. But it’s necessary — partly because fictional victims of police violence are usually humanized even as real-life media coverage often reduces real-life victims to cardboard caricatures. One of The Hate U Give‘s many strong points is that the story is told from the perspective of its three-dimensional Black characters. Plus the writing and story are steeped in African-American culture (as well as being steeped in the digital age — a lot of texting and social media going on!).
The uncalled-for police murder of Khalil is the novel’s pivotal moment, but the book really focuses on Starr, the teen girl who was with Khalil when he’s shot multiple times. We see her anguished reaction, the community response, the nasty smearing of Khalil’s character, and what Starr does and doesn’t do amid zero interest from the police and other authorities in seeking any kind of punishment for the guilty cop. They want the truth covered up.
Other novels can be painful but important to read for other reasons.
For instance, any novel with American slavery as an element is going to leave any decent person seething and shaken. Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred, Alex Haley’s Roots, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident are just five must-read examples.
Or novels with Holocaust themes such as Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s List, William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, Erich Maria Remarque’s Spark of Life, and Art Spiegelman’s Maus (a graphic novel).
It’s also hard to experience the difficult lives and miserable working conditions of exploited fictional employees — such as the miners in Emile Zola’s Germinal and the characters in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (the latter book did lead to some reforms in the meatpacking industry). Two deservedly classic books, and Germinal is Zola’s masterpiece.
Then there are novels in which certain characters suffer from devastating diseases. We read those books because they can be compelling, informative, and inspiring, but they can also be damn depressing. Lisa Genova’s Still Alice, (Ms.) Lionel Shriver’s So Much for That, Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper…
Expand misery to almost an entire society, and you have dystopian or apocalyptic novels that are gripping but exceedingly downbeat. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Neil Shute’s On the Beach, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, and so on.
And then there are painful love affairs in fiction. One example is the aforementioned Erich Maria Remarque’s mesmerizing A Time to Love and a Time to Die — about a romance between a woman and an on-leave soldier that you just know will end badly.
Heck, Remarque is among the authors who had or have a history of writing melancholy novels, so the reader usually knows something sad’s coming. But if the writers are good enough — and Remarque is fabulous — the books are well worth the time.
Some novels you like or love while finding painful to read?
My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.
In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started, award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — which comedically gives fake origins to local street names — is here.