In Defence of Bleak Books

Ah, it’s August, when beach reads fly off the shelves and onto e-readers . . . We have already compiled a top ten list of summery reads but back then I didn’t say what I really feel, which is that summer holidays are actually for reading bleak books.

I know the received wisdom is that on a beach people want light reads, page-turners. But that doesn’t work for me. Reading prize page-turner THE DA VINCI CODE almost ruined one poolside vacation for me (and yet, no, I couldn’t stop turning those damned pages until I’d finished, tutting as I was). But PROZAC NATION, a whole book about depression, couldn’t put a dent in my joyous Thai beach experience.

In fact, my argument is precisely that the best way to counter any bleakness is to lift your eyes from the page, look around you and realise that your life ain’t so bad as in your book. Can you do that when reading a bleak book on a dark, rainy November afternoon? Not so much.

But why should you read bleak books? Bleak books tend to be bleak because they deconstruct familiar comforts, taking them away until there is so little left you are forced to confront an essence of humanity. And I find, in most cases, the last grain of humanity remaining is something positive and wonderful to cherish.

So, if you’re still yet to choose your holiday reading, here are some recommendations from me.

The Road

THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy

After an apocalypse so awful we never really find out what happened, there are few humans left and very little of anything else. A father and his son make their way across a barren landscape in search of the sea – for want of anywhere better to aim for. This book is masterfully suspenseful, truly TERRIFYING and unrelentingly bleak – no, wait, there are breaks in the bleakness, but that’s only so that when the softer moments end things are even harder than before – but once I’d survived reading it I emerged with a new appreciation and love for the world I’m in, with, you know, buses and lights and people who don’t want to eat you.



THE GRAPES OF WRATH by John Steinbeck

From a bleak imagined future to a bleak real past, this is my favourite book, full stop. A road trip novel where the hapless Joad family, symbolic of all the migrant dustbowl families of depression-era USA, are leaving one impossible situation, forced to chase a rainbow with no pot of gold at the end, just hardship and starvation. While their bleak situation is entirely human-made, making you curse everything the western world stands for, the book radiates a vital humanity that is deeply moving and fulfilling.

PROZAC NATION by Elizabeth Wurtzel

Breakdowns and suicide attempts – yay, summer! – litter this memoir of a brilliant student with serious depression. It’s also a cry for a broken generation brought up in a dysfunctional society and an epidemic of depression. So one person’s hell echoes across a whole generation. On the bright side, it’s a little dated – of its era – so you don’t have to worry about the world as it is right now while you read it. (Oh no, the world right now is so much better than it was in 1995…)

 The Child in Time


Or dare I suggest, anything by Ian McEwan. His books tend to be categorized by a terrible event at the beginning – in this case, a child disappearing while shopping with her father – with the characters coming to terms with the event through the bulk of the book. Lives break down and you experience all the emotion with them. But, if you can stick through it, one crumb of happiness is thrown out at the end.

 Bridget Jones's Diary


I’m joking. I’m not joking. Yes, it is a great, perfectly judged romantic comedy, but it made me feel unbearably bleak about life for women in their thirties. I was 19 when I read it – it was the wrong book at the wrong time for me. Herein lies a lesson about reading the right book at the right time, and that any book can be bleak if read at the wrong time.

In conclusion, any book can be bleak if read at the wrong time, in the wrong frame of mind, and almost all books have a silver lining if you look hard enough, or just want to find one – but what better way to deal with anything a book throws at you than by being on holiday with nothing else to worry about. Happy holidays!

Let us know your less-than-sunny book recommendations for summer reads!