When books have sad endings

May 7, 2014


Recently I’ve read a book which took me on a beautifully written journey, which seemed destined to end in healing and redemption. I was particularly interested in this book because it promised to take its place among the ‘new’ literature we so desperately need now- one that provides an alternative vision of the world -one full of hope,  where we are part of nature, where we are connected to one another, and our lives do have purpose and meaning.

The story:  3 unrelated people form their own relationship with a strip of green, a little park in an English town which borders on a neighbourhood in decline. Each person is, in a particular way, lost. A Polish man and a lonely boy find each other. They form a tentative friendship, and one starts to hope that the child will eventually find some stability outside of his home and the total neglect of his mother. The 3rd character is an elderly widow living on the edge of this park. She occasionally does some guerilla gardening there.

Each of these characters is on a journey to some kind of reconciliation or hope, and the nature in the park is a catalyst for the healing they start to find.

Then, a crisis in the last pages sees the man and the boy who have formed a totally innocent friendship, wrenched apart by a police raid.  The man’s beloved dog, with whom the boy was also bonding,  is dragged away by the neck and will probably be put down because she has Pit Bull blood. We leave him holding a duffel bag, waiting for a bus to take him away from the tender beginnings of home and community he had patiently started to build up. The old woman we last see alone in the hospital hooked up to wires and infusions.  And the boy is torn out of his familiar territory and sent to another part of the country to his father, whom we have been told is a violent man.

Every author has the freedom to choose how to end their story, granted. But I question the integrity of such an ending. ‘Shit happens’, yes, I am bombarded by this detritus of the ‘old story’ every minute through the media. But that is not what I am looking for when I reach for a book. Artists, writers, story tellers, have the chance to create a new story- one of hope. One which illuminates ways to connect, to find meaning in life, rise above circumstances, to treasure the small things, to bond with places and people, to thrive rather than just survive. I believe we have a responsibility to the material we put out there. Barry Lopez, words this beautifully:

If I were asked what  I want to accomplish as a writer, I would say it is to contribute to a literature of hope…I want to help create a body of stories in which men and women can discover trustworthy patterns.

Every story is an act of trust between a writer and a reader; each story in the end is social. Whatever a writer sets down can help or harm the community of which he or she is a part.

Each of the little green shoots of healing were ground out at the end of this book, like so many cigarette stubs. I trustingly embarked on a journey with the writer and her characters and felt betrayed by what happened to them at the end. This kind of writing feeds the ‘old’ story of a hostile universe, a meaningless world without grace or miracles or healing.

Not that every story must have a happy ending, but when you deliberately annihilate hope, there has to be a good reason for it. As I see it, these decisions did not serve the story or any purpose at all. It is simply trendy to have a dark ending. It is a device.

And therefore meaningless.



The book is ‘Clay’ by Melissa Harrison. If you don’t mind the ending, I”d still recommend it for the gorgeous writing.

10 Responses to “When books have sad endings”

  1. I’m totally with you there Sarah. We should all encourage hopefulness not despair. There is far too much misery shown to us as it is without perpetuating it in literature. I will look out for the book. Thanks for the heads up about the ending.

    • Thanks Sonia, I agree.

      The idea of creators having responsibility to their communities is still new, and not palatable to those still operating from the archetype of artists being answerable to no one and nothing except their art. In the emerging age of interconnectedness this stance is quickly being outdated.

  2. Faith is often described as the belief in the possibility of something better…I believe that art is in the doing and that it should be a celebration of the good and positive too…”truth is beauty and beauty truth”

    • I like that definition of faith, Richard. I appreciate you commenting here.
      I agree that truth is beauty and vice versa. I’ve experienced films, theatre and books where the truth is hard, and there were no happy endings, but the issues were handled in such a way as to preserve hope.

  3. flissw Says:

    I just had the reverse experience in a non-fiction book, mainly about the dismal developments of isolated, isolating, unsustainable suburbs in the US and South America. It ended with a chapter on ‘slow cities’ and other efforts to restore community and reconnect in various places around the world. I was very grateful to the author for that bit of hopefulness.

    • I’m so glad the book you read presented some avenues for solution as well as highlighting the problems. There are some really super things being done along those lines- see the Ted talk called ‘Retrofitting Suburbia’for more inspiration.

      thanks for your input.

  4. So eloquent, Sarah. I do enjoy reading about your experiences.
    I also relish stories of hope, redemption, love and kindness.

  5. Thanks Annie, always nice to hear your thoughts.

  6. decorartuk Says:

    What a coincidence – going away I took a book to read on the plane and was hoping that it would be something that would “refresh” my belief that no matter what, everything has a good ending. I was very wrong… I’m glad that I read the last pages at the hotel and not somewhere in public as I had tears streaming down my face.

    I wouldn’t say that this author tried to kill hope or to portray our World as if it is a cold and horrible place where no one can be trusted, quite on the contrary – there were lots of lovely characters, yet there was no reason to “murder” the main character and rob her of the love and joy she found in her previously quite miserable life.

    Yes, life can be unfair, but do we have to be constantly told about sad endings or horrible events? This horror/violence escalation has been adopted by our media (the more blood and suffering, the better), but sadly it seems it has also moved into our literature and culture in general (for e.g. Copenhagen zoo killing a healthy young giraffe).

    I don’t think I could be called an optimist – I think too much, I’m too responsible to enjoy life to its full or make silly mistakes that might make me laugh in a few decades, yet I’ve never stopped believing in kindness. I believe that love comes back to you; so if you’re spreading these good vibes, you’ll fill your life with goodness.

    Well, it seems that from now on we should be very careful choosing books. K.

  7. Thanks for adding your thoughts to this, K. I’m sorry you also went through such an disillusioning literary journey. Maybe you should write a book, I like what you’ve said here,
    ‘ yet I’ve never stopped believing in kindness. I believe that love comes back to you; so if you’re spreading these good vibes, you’ll fill your life with goodness’.
    I totally agree! S

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