When we learn about trauma, we also learn about catharsis, about ‘getting it out’ and finding closure. About having a cathartic experience. This is why we read books about war and suffering, why survivor testimonies are always popular books in whatever form they may take – from the wonder of writers like Primo Levi, to the tawdriness of abuse memoirs. We read sad stories out of curiosity, out of a desire to know how bad things can be in order to appreciate the true goodness of our own lives. We need to remember that it can always be worse, that there are and were a lot of people a lot worse off than us. But, we must not be negative, we must not focus on sad things to the point that they bring us down and we see sadness in everything.
I chose to praise sad books in this post partly because I have realised that a lot of the books I read have sad stories. One in particular that I read very recently was a memoir by journalist Emma Brockes in which she investigates her mother’s dramatic life after her death. She Left Me the Gun has been described as a misery memoir, unfortunately, but that was not what it was for me. For one thing I started reading it without any knowledge of the darkness it held, and I was not in any way intrigued or scandalised by the disturbing nature of the revelations.
It is a very intelligently written book, a woman taking the time to examine her mother’s life and the history of that part of her family, and to lay it all out before her like a jigsaw – to piece it together and see a whole. But Emma Brockes does not dwell on negativity or unpleasant memories. She recounts everything as unfortunate matter-of-fact, as ‘this is what happened’ and little else. She of course examines its ramifications and the ways in which the suffering of the past has filtered into the present, but again it is not depressing or sensationalist. The fact that she is a journalist, and that it is her own family, means that she is very respectful and never veers towards vulgarity or luridness. She takes everything as it appears to her and rationally recounts it to her readers in a way that is not heavy-handed or grim.
Though I didn’t enjoy learning of her family’s pain I did enjoy She Left Me the Gun for the fact that Emma Brockes’ mother had an incredible life, and she tells it wonderfully. I learned about South Africa, and the difficulties of coming to England, and I read charming and funny anecdotes about family life, and I liked Emma Brockes and her mother very much. All life has sadness in it, and to deny it is to be unrealistic. So there is nothing wrong with reading sad stories, and they can be read out of something other than morbid curiosity – but most importantly, for me, ‘sad stories’ contain so much more than sadness. Often they serve to highlight the areas of life without sadness, the happiness and light that we so need. We must experience the sadness in order to be able to say, as at the end of She Left Me the Gun, ‘enough now.’
She Left Me the Gun was published by Faber & Faber (UK paperback) in February 2014.