Reading Cheryl Strayed’s emotional review of Sonali Deraniyagala’s memoir, Wave, about the loss of her husband, sons, and parents in the 2004 tsunami that claimed more than a quarter of a million lives, I had an immediate set of antipodal impulses I’ve experienced many times before: Rush to the nearest book store to buy the book and start reading right now! Put my hands over my ears, stare unseeingly at a point in the horizon, and mutter to myself to drown out all sound.
I’ve always been drawn to dark literature about unimaginable suffering—I remember reading Night by Elie Wiesel when I was probably too young to fully comprehend the scale of the horror he depicted, but the starkness of the images has stayed with me across the decades. Periodically, because life is full of breathtaking tragedy, a writer is skilled enough to present his or her experience of his or her own unimaginable suffering in a way that sheds light on our sorrows and losses and the process by which we cope (well or badly) with them.
The most successful of these narratives tend to be lean and unvarnished and the authors of these books are unsparing of themselves and their readers. They tend to be short books and completely engrossing—playing on that thing that compels human beings to stop and watch a train wreck even if we will have nightmares forever after. So, why am I as loath to pick up a copy of Wave as I am compelled to read it? And, which impulse should I give in to.
How do you guys feel about this kind of grief narrative? Do you find that you force yourselves to read these books or do you pass them by on the bookshelves out of an instinct for self-preservation (emotional, that is)?