Gut-wrenching novels are known for the catharsis they offer. It ruptures the bubble of negative emotions that swells as we read. The list below presents a few stories that are deep enough to convince anyone to take the plunge.
1. ‘Alf’ by Bruno Vogel
Why did you tear yourself away from me without any reason, without any explanation? Why that senseless, inexplicable, brutal, terrible ‘Leave me alone!’?
Vogel, who served as a German soldier during World War I, penned this touching novel in 1929 to immortalise his pacifist thoughts. In doing so, he presented a fearless take on the sexual and political “otherness” of Felix and Alf, the two boys at the heart of the story.
Their friendship thickens and matures over the years. But as external voices become deafening, self-doubt sets in. When Felix puts a stop to their intimacy, Alf finds himself unable to bear it. With the Great War raging on, the army welcomes Alf with open arms to send him off to the Front, from where he writes about wartime horrors.
Certain revelations take painful turns to reach Felix, but the proud way in which this coming-of-age story is told, in defiance of the ongoing spread of fear, makes it truly unique. The war seems almost marginal up to a point, with the evolution of Felix’s fighting spirit taking center stage. And the way the boys’ hearts are intertwined makes for a deeply scarring separation.
Alf is not only one of the earliest German books to feature homosexuality but is also one of the first to present it as a natural and beautiful aspect of life. Consequently, the book was later banned and burned in Hitler’s Germany.
2. ‘Just Above My Head’ by James Baldwin
For, without love, pleasure withers quickly, becomes a foul taste on the palate, and pleasure’s inventions are soon exhausted. There must be a soul within the body you are holding, a soul which you are striving to meet, a soul which is striving to meet yours.
Arthur, a renowned gospel singer, dies suddenly in a restaurant in London. What follows is a retrospective account of his life given by his older brother Hall, whose grief forces him to his knees. The longing in the story only intensifies when we meet Jimmy, Arthur’s partner. As we’re guided through their passionate life together, Jimmy’s words stretch and deepen to reflect the pitless agony of his yearning for his lost lover.
When two people have so much to say to each other that there’s almost nothing they can say, and they just stare at each other. But that’s saying something, too.
Sensuality blends with grief, love grapples with violence. Baldwin’s prose bursts at the seams with ardor, allowing lamentation to pervade the memorized cadence of laughter. In Just Above My Head, Baldwin also allows himself to paint an honest and adoring picture of same-sex intimacy, adding the finishing touches to the ode to love he first started in Giovanni’s Room.
3. ‘History is All You Left Me’ by Adam Silvera
I’ll never understand how time can make a moment feel as close as yesterday and as far as years.
Griffin and Theo are lifelong best friends, who find that the winding path of their friendship has led them straight to love. But as college looms on the horizon, and the fear of separation ignites new insecurities, the boys part ways.
Despite this, Griffin’s belief that the two of them will find their way back to each other one day never falters. Not even when Theo starts seeing Jackson in California, and his own love life further complicates their friendship.
You’re dead, and I’m the worst kind of alive.
When Theo dies suddenly in a drowning accident, the world stops turning for Griffin. He’s crippled by grief, hollowed out by the loss of the one person that meant everything to him.
History Is All You Left Me explores Griffin’s journey back to himself has to start somewhere, and regaining control over his spiraling OCD seems like the most pressing matter. But as his emotional unraveling wreaks havoc on his relationships, Griffin realises that first, he has to demystify the history he shared with Theo.
4. ‘The Absolutist’ by John Boyne
I think I’m just breathing, that’s all. And there’s a difference between breathing and being alive.
Tristan Sadler and Will Bancroft meet as young soldiers during the Great War. Their friendship sweetens the grueling training camp that heralds their journey to the Front.
When a fellow soldier declares himself a conscientious objector and refuses to fight, he is labeled a ‘feather man’ and a coward. Appalled, Will acts as his confidant and is forever changed by the young man’s twisted fate.
Meanwhile, as Tristan and Will’s friendship pierces uncomfortable valves of intimacy, the two men find themselves stuck in a tide of desire and self-loathing. And as the horrors they endure in the trenches magnify over time, Will questions the moral justification for the mass murder they’re a part of.
And I have tried to forget him, I have tried to convince myself that it was just one of those things, but it’s difficult to do that when my body is standing here, eight feet deep in the earth of northern France, while my heart remains by a stream in a clearing in England where I left it weeks ago.
In The Absolutist, jealousy, passion, and bravery blend together to form this harrowingly intimate tale of two young men coming to terms with the tragedy of World War I. Surprisingly, in the end, it’s an act of betrayal that leaves them debilitated beyond repair.
5. ‘The Prophets’ by Robert Jones, Jr.
Reluctantly, he swept the evidence of their bliss back into a neat pile, nearer to where their misery was already neatly stacked. All of it to be sustenance for beasts anyway.
Isaiah and Samuel are slaves living on a Deep South plantation. Though their days are spent tending to their master’s livestock, emotionally, they belong only to each other. This devotion drives a wedge between them and the rest of the world, which is confined to the edges of their owner’s property.
Many of the other slaves see the open secret of the boys’ passion as not only deviant but selfish. And as their lives are presented in crushing detail, the tension keeps mounting, forcing Isaiah and Samuel to reevaluate first their choices, then their safety.
Our responsibility is to tell you the truth. But since you were never told the truth, you will believe it a lie. Lies are more affectionate than truth and embrace with both arms.
The Prophets is an extraordinary tale. Above all, it tests the elasticity of emotion, from forbidden love to deep maternal alienation. But it’s the book’s celebration of African culture that adds layers of interpretation to the writer’s haunting prose.
The magic and surrealism only accentuate the many traditions and beliefs that were erased by the appearance of the white man on the continent. And as time and personal individuality merge, a whole chorus of voices is unleashed on the reader, bearing messages from a different plane.
6. ‘Horse Named Sorrow’ by Trebor Healey
I felt my heart crack slowly like a pomegranate, spilling its seeds.
Set in San Francisco at the height of the AIDS epidemic, the story presents Seamus, a young and somewhat lost man, on the day he meets the enigma that is Jimmy. He soon learns that the older man has pedaled across the continent on his bike, and that he came to San Francisco to die.
As the two men fall in love, Jimmy’s vicious disintegration leaves Seamus in pieces. The air grows thicker when, shortly before dying, Jimmy asks his lover to “take him back the way he came”. And so, barely able to breathe through his grief, the young man sets out on a journey that will leave him altered forever.
Love was actually more like calculus or physics. What was the half-life of love? Did it have cosigns and slopes, or quarks that morphed from wave to particle faster than you could say, please don’t leave?
In Horse Named Sorrow, Healey paints an exquisite panorama of grief, loss, and suffering. The prose feels like a runaway poem, and every emotion trembles until it spills down the page.
We’re led from the buzzing streets of San Francisco to the barely inhabited world between towns; one that seems to drown in nature’s saturated tones.
It’s a harrowing read, but one crafted so well, that completing the journey feels like one of life’s essential milestones. You’ll be as starved for release as Seamus.
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