The bestselling author of The Pursuit of Happiness, Douglas Kennedy, turns his pen to the pain of passing with a selection of books that encompasses classics, SF and memoirs.
The End of the Affair: ‘One man’s cathartic journey into the realm of emotional distress…’
Douglas Kennedy was born in Manhattan in 1955. He studied at Bowdoin College, Maine and Trinity College, Dublin, returning to Dublin in 1977 when he co-founded a theatre company. In 1988 he moved to London and now divides his time between London, Paris, Berlin and Gozo. His debut novel The Dead Heart was published in 1994 and was followed by other bestsellers, including The Job (1998), The Pursuit of Happiness (2001) and Temptation (2006). His work has been translated into 18 languages and, following the publication of Woman in the Fifth in 2007, he was awarded the French honour Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. His latest book, Leaving the World, is published by Hutchinson.
My new novel, Leaving the World, is – among other things – about an appalling tragedy that upends the life of a woman in her late 20s. As such, before writing the novel, I did peruse (or re-read) several key works that also grapple with loss and the way we confront the worst that life can throw at us. Intriguingly, I was most attracted to those works that did not provide easy bromides or solutions for the horrors of grief, and instead embraced an approach to loss that eschewed the search for ‘closure’ (what a hateful word) and instead looked upon loss as one of the prices we pay for being here. Anyway, here – in no particular order – are 10 books that I found essential texts on this subject.
1. The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
A love story about the impossibility of love, and the way love often becomes a high-stakes game of possessiveness. It is also a remarkable examination of one man’s cathartic journey into the realm of emotional distress after a lifetime of dodging all feeling.
2. A Grief Observed by CS Lewis
CS Lewis’s unvarnished account of his love affair with the American poet, Joy Davidson, and her death by cancer. Very heart-on-the-sleeve and a little too Christian for some tastes, but still profoundly affecting in its direct examination of the unbridled nature of loss.
3. The Child in Time by Ian McEwan
My favourite novel by McEwan, and one in which he marries high intellect with great emotional complexity and depth. A child vanishes in a supermarket and the novel not only becomes a tale of loss, but also of the way public and private worlds always impinge on each other (an ongoing McEwan theme).
4. The Shipping News by Annie Proulx
That rare thing – a novel about redemption that so cannily eschews sentimentality, but also speaks volumes about the interrelationship between life’s innate sorrows and life’s ongoing possibilities.
5. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
The greatest dystopian novel since Orwell’s 1984. A bravura imagining of the horrors of a Christian theocracy in the United States, it is also underscored by the narrator’s tale of the loss of her daughter. Atwood brilliantly marries pellucid irony with a cool, but marked empathy.
6. Stasiland by Anna Funder
A brilliant human document about life in East Germany, written by an Australian writer who spent several years in the old East Berlin after the fall of the Wall. More than anything it is about the horrors of a totalitarian regime as visited upon its citizens – and the lasting grief of those who survived communism as practised by Germans.
7. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Didion’s now-classic account of the sudden death of her husband and (latterly) of her daughter. It brilliantly essays the way the unimaginable enters quotidian life with happenstantial abruptness.
8. First Love by Ivan Turgenev
Was there ever a more perfect short story – and one which so brilliantly captures the cognisance of one’s own romantic impulse and the equally quicksilver discovery that love rarely ends well.
9. On Death and Dying by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross
This 1969 work by the Swiss-born psychiatrist is still the benchmark about the five steps we all negotiate when dealing with grief and tragedy: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
10. The Dead by James Joyce
His masterwork from Dubliners, and a brilliant exploration of the unknowingness of even those most intimate to you, and the way we all harbour sadnesses that we rarely show the world.