The Lovely Bones
By Alice Sebold
Geez, Louise, who's got a bottle of bourbon and a straight razor?
If you haven't read The Lovely Bones yet then, like me, you obviously live either on or under a rock.
The Lovely Bones is the ultra bleak story of a family (The Salmons) that slowly unravels and disintegrates in the wake of the murder of their oldest daughter. Concerning the murder of (or from their perspective, the disappearance) the Salmons are given a frustrating lack of details (and body) in the weeks and months and years following the tragedy and each of the family members attempts to cope with the tragedy in their own, often misguided ways. It's an interesting study on the long-term effects of an unsolved crime on a family. Forewarned: Anyone looking for a cathartic end to this story will be sorely disappointed.
What makes this novel especially refreshing is that it is told from the narrative perspective of the murdered girl (Susie). Susie follows the heart-wrenching ordeals of her family and friends (and those of her murderer) from her place in heaven. This makes The Lovely Bones essentially the only example of a first person omniscient narrative that I have ever read (or remember reading). The Lovely Bones is a well crafted novel that never once slips into the easy rut of predictability. What I appreciated most was the characterization of heaven. It wasn't your run-of-the-mill Christian heaven and it refrained from the notion of judgment and everlasting peace. Thank you, Ms. Sebold. After some of the stinkers I've read recently, I needed a novel like this just now.
But since I'm late to the Lovely Bones party and everyone has already read this or seen the movie, I thought I would try and catalog some of my other favorite ultra-bleak novels. I don't make a rule of reading depressing literature, but I have made my way through a few torturous tomes in my time. Lets start with the most obvious:
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
I don't think there was a single moment in this book where the reader feels like any of the characters have a snowball's chance in hell. This book is hopelessness in its purest form.
The Little Matchstick Girl by Hans Christian Andersen
OK, it's not a novel but it's perhaps the bleakest of all fairy tales. I recall that even the mention of this story when I was a kid would trigger tears and sleepless nights. Of course, The Brady Bunch also scared me as a kid, so take that for what it's worth.
A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn
Who would have thought that a book about life in a Soviet Gulag would be so bleak? I remember that besides being totally soul-destroying, this book made me insatiably hungry.
Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo
A novel from the perspective of a soldier who has lost his arms, legs and face in battle. Nothing says bleak like the ruminations of an organic stump kept alive by machines with no way to communicate with the world outside his mind.
1984 by George Orwell
Any additions? A bleak book I should read?