This is a rather longer essay than usual, which I’ve been planning for a while. I often find myself reading-at first usually by accident, then on purpose as I realize what’s happening-several books in succession exploring similar themes. These are the times when (I’m beginning to think) I gain the deepest understanding and appreciation of the books I read.
Last year I found myself reading a series of different novels concerning British imperialism in South Asia: Rebel Queen by Michelle Moran, The Strangler Vine by M J Carter (which I have touched on in a previous review), The Hamilton Case (for a second time, it’s becoming one of my favorite books), set in British Sri Lanka when it was still called Ceylon, and finally and somewhat tangentially Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, broadening the geographic and historical scope of the theme to include south Asian diaspora in the UK and the contemporary effects of historic imperialism.
More recently I’ve been reading Patrick O’Brian‘s novels simultaneously with Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series (both set in the same era and approximate geographic areas, though only one of them includes dragons), and I have had the singular pleasure of recognizing names, places and events recurrent in both.
This style of reading allows me to become (to an extent) conversant in a subject, be it British imperialism or the events of the Napoleonic wars, and I’m finding lately that it allows me a much deeper understanding of these themes than if I’d read the books in isolation.
The newest books to form an instance of this pattern are The North Water by Ian McGuire, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, and Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks. These books have a bit more of an abstract connection than usual, on which I will elaborate. While these books occupy different settings, eras and even arguably different genres, they share some essential thematic and stylistic qualities-the qualities which make them so compelling: All of these books have protagonists who basically go through hell. These characters are forced to endure abuse, grief, war, disgrace and every imaginable kind of physical hardship. Some of them survive, some succumb, but all are fundamentally changed by what they go through. These four novels aren’t unique in this respect but they are unique in how they delve deeply enough into the inner lives and pasts and emotions of the characters such that the reader forms (or at least I did) an intense emotional connection with the story.
In addition, the characters are all men. This fact, combined with the emotionally engaging telling of the story that renders the characters not only relatable but vulnerable, even fragile, as each goes through his respective hell, is what makes these stories so valuable. Yanagihara has spoken in interviews about the psychological effects of trauma and abuse on men in particular, and the fact that fiction often does not allow male characters to grow with the kind of complex emotional vulnerability as female characters. Sebastian Faulks too has written about this (though I’ve since mislaid my copy of the book that had this interview in it), and while the characters in his novels sometimes wax too philosophical to be strictly believable, the emotional complexity and vulnerability of-especially of-his male characters cannot be overstated.
Faulks has said that the overarching theme of Birdsong is to question what the lengths are to which humanity can go and still be able to call itself that. He was referring to the line between passive obedience and active evil but this applies to personal hardship as well. What can a man go through and still be a ‘person’? What is the personhood like of men (and women, for that matter) who have gone past that point, who have undergone such hardship that the foundations of their personhood have been shaken?
Why do books like these make us feel so much for their characters while others don’t? What makes an account of emotional or physical trauma compelling? I’m sure there are plenty of other books that achieve this emotional depth and I’d love to hear about them. Please feel free to comment and discuss! Also, if you ‘read themes’ as well, I’d love to hear about it! What books have you read on a theme lately and what did they have in common?