Those hard-to-read books

There are books that are challenging to read. I often fail. I’m not talking about impenetrable, long, arcane books (say James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake or William Faulkner’s Absolom, Absolom!). I am referring to the fear of my reactions, my reluctance to explore difficult situations, often involving violence, and violence against women in particular. So difficult subject matter then.

Here are two books I thought I would never start to read, let alone finish.

The Child in Time by Ian McEwan.

121 ChildThis was the book selected by the reading group I had just joined. So I had to read it. I had always thought that the theme would be too difficult for me. A toddler goes missing at a supermarket. She’s gone. A nightmare for the parents. What happened to the child? How could I read a book that raised that terror for me? And that is McEwan’s genius, to take an aspect of middle-class life and subvert it, utterly. I enjoyed the book group.


We Need to talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver.

‘Have you read it?’ my friends would ask. ‘It’s about-‘ I knew what it was about. How could I read about those high school massacres? Why would I want to follow members of the school community who randomly kill their schoolmates? It was bad enough to read about them in the papers, but to explore such an incident seemed perverse. But after some years I did.

121 KevinI found Kevin to be something of a tour de force. The questions raised by a hard-to-love child, about parenting, even when your child has committed the most heinous of crimes. Shriver tackled these bleak themes with creativity and insight and, as in the best fiction, it changed my understanding.




Here’s a book I never thought I would finish, but I did.

Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall, translated from the Polish by Philip Boehm

121 Kof HI started this novella and laid it aside as too excoriating and then began it again later. It was included in my subscription to Peirene Press. A book from them is always a treasure, even a hard to read treasure. The story follows a woman who was both Polish and Jewish searching for her husband in the Second World War. I was horrified by the erosion of moral behaviour, of impossible dilemmas, all in the pursuit of love. The accumulation of atrociousness is told in a rather bland, flat style – one thing after another – which made it possible to finish it and to ponder the mystery of what humans do to each other.

Here’s a book I started but don’t imagine I will ever finish.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Another war, more horror, more violence, more unspeakable atrocities. At least that is what I think I am avoiding. I enjoyed the first half, about Nigeria before the Biafran War. But I’ll leave it there, thank you.

Here’s another book I have started and I’m not sure I will finish.

121 W in BerlinA Woman in Berlin, anonymous author.

These are the diaries of a journalist in Berlin as it falls to the advancing Red Army towards the end of the Second World War in Europe. Will I be able to read the first-hand account of what the soldiers did to the women?


Here’s a book my friend says, ‘I’m still not reading’.

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks.

Well then, I’m not reading it either!

121 Wasp

You can find a list of the top ten most difficult books on a Guardian blog by Alison Flood: The world’s most difficult books: how many have you read? My answer is one!

The same list is described in more detail on the Publishers Weekly website.


Am I a wuss for avoiding and recoiling from the narration (fictional and factual) of humankind’s appalling behaviour, especially in wartimes? I don’t know. What do you think? Are there any books you can’t read?


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Filed under Books, Reading

7 Responses to Those hard-to-read books

  1. Most interesting question, Caroline. Of the Guardian’s list, there are six I haven’t even heard of and, of the rest, I thought To the Lighthouse was a relatively easy read and I genuinely don’t know whether I’ve read Clarissa or not (might just have led to the spoof version, whatever that was called by Henry Fielding).
    But you’re asking about difficult content. I must confess I’m somewhat drawn to the dark side, as long as it’s well written and lets in at least a glimmer of light. I enjoyed A Child in Time and loved Kevin and also rated Half of the Yellow Sun. I think I’ve read The Wasp Factory, but it might be one of the bleaker ones. Torture is quite difficult for me so In the Orchard, the Swallows was a challenge, although fortunately it’s beautifully written:
    Thanks for raising this topic and I’ll be interested to see what others have to say.

    • Caroline

      Thanks for your comments. I agree about the list I referred to – many of them I wouldn’t dream of reading I suspect. But I am admiring for your ability to confront the dark side. Maybe I should just read one a year or something … Tread carefully.

  2. I read the German original of “A Woman in Berlin” in the autumn of 2011, after having gone through a really hard-to-read book on rape of German and Austrian women by Allied forces (I don’t think it has been translated yet – it gave me nightmares for solid two weeks. Ingo von Münch: “Frau, komm”, in case you’re interested). After that, of course, things could only get better! But I was surprised how much I took to “A Woman in Berlin”. It is at its core a triumph of life, with a remarkable amount of humour in it. The topic matter sounds like doom and gloom, and if you’ve never heard of the events of ’45, I’m sure it can be very hard indeed. But I found it to be optimistic, humane, touching and at times quite funny.
    In fact, I liked it so much that I started doing research on its author and ended up writing her biography. So I – totally biased – recommend reading it. 🙂 You never know where hard-to-read books can lead you…

    • Caroline

      Many thanks for this thoughtful response, which actually echoes my own reading of the translation. Yes I have read it since posting about my fears. And you are right, those hard to read books often repay a little fearlessness.
      I will be writing about A Woman in Berlin again in a couple of weeks, so I hope you will come back and look at that post.
      I am interested that you have written the author’s biography. I am not sure how I feel. Curious about what happened to her in her long life after May 1945, but also wanting to honour her desire for anonymity. Perhaps you cacn reply with some comments about how you approached this question.
      And is it published in English?
      Thank you so much for these comments.

      • Dear Caroline,
        thanks for your interest – and congratulations for overcoming your fears. I’m definitely looking forward to reading your thoughts about “A Woman in Berlin”.
        As for the biography: No, it hasn’t been translated yet. I’m thinking about writing an abridged English version in form of an article or something, as I know there are many people especially in English speaking countries who take an interest in “A Woman in Berlin” and its author.
        The question of anonymity had been decided long before I ever read the book – in 2003, a journalist came across some information regarding the author and published it along with her name, which in turn lead to a long and bitter media discussion about proper journalism, ethics etc. What struck me when I started my research was how narrow-minded that article in fact was. And the real problem with that was: It was the only sort of research that had been done at all, so all its ‘findings’ made their way into Wikipedia, and anyone discussing “A Woman in Berlin” only ever quoted from there. My approach therefore was to put things in perspective and to tell what happened before the author came to that particular point in her history and what happened after. April to June 1945 was such a short time in her rich and interesting life of 90 years, and the idea of seeing her only in connection with that short space of time simply rankled me.
        I was extremely lucky to find her next of kin who the press had never bothered talking to. They were so welcoming and generous and gave me free access to everything they had of her personal papers, letters, photos, books… I even ended up being given her old typewriter as a gift! I can’t be grateful enough to them.
        In talking to the relatives and reading her letters, I have tentatively come to the conclusion that she would have been happy with the success of her book and, as such, of being associated with it. She probably wouldn’t have liked to have reporters all over her, though! But I never got the impression that she was ashamed of her book or of having written it. She didn’t think it was worth very much in terms of money (she wrote to that effect in her will), but she actually prepared the new edition to be published after her death, so she must have taken an interest in it. I therefore hope she would approve of my biography, as well.

        • Caroline

          Thank you so much Clarissa for your further commonets. All that is very interesting indeed, including about the question of anonymity. Her diaries of her time in Berlin in those crucial two months suggested to me that she was a very perceptive and grounded woman. I hope she wrote other things that were published. She was a journalist after all.
          And I hope you will write your article, including in English.
          Perhaps you will come back to me after I have posted Berlin Stories in early October.

  3. Dear Caroline,
    just to follow up this subject once more: I have now started a series of post in English on the author and her life: the Introduction today.) How long it will take me to finish it, I can’t say at this point. The plan is to publish one post each week. If I can stick to it remains to be seen.
    Thanks again for your interest.

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