I love getting lost into the world of a book. You know how it is when you can’t handle taking a bathroom break or stopping to eat lunch because it might mean tearing your eyes away from the page? Luckily, as an English major, reading is a big part of my learning experience. Not every book I’ve been assigned to read has been my style, but some of those books have been so good that they sucked me deep into the story until the next things I knew, tears were streaming down my cheeks.
For the sake of this article, I won’t be focusing on all the books I’ve read over the past year. If you want to read a fantastic overview of a wide span of books, I suggest you check out Evan’s 2014 Literary Awards. Instead, I want to share the last three books that made me cry, and, more importantly, I want to discuss the larger issues that make each of these three books valuable reads.
Each of these novels engages with what it means to live in a post-colonial world. In each story, it quickly becomes apparent that the horrors of colonization do not simply end the moment government policy changes.
While I will avoid any key plot points in these books, I will be alluding to general context around the books. If you prefer to go into your reading experience with a blank slate, I should warn you, Spoiler-ish content below.
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
Generally regarded as the post-colonial prequel to Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea opens in Jamaica, shortly after the abolition of slavery. Rhys’ protagonist, Antoinette, comes from a family of plantation owners who were brought to financial ruin by abolition. As a child, Antoinette struggles to understand what separates her family from the rising class of British capitalists.
By writing from the perspective of a child on the wrong side of history, Rhys prevents any oversimplification of her narrative. She also challenges the idea that colonial injustice somehow ended when slavery did.
Rhys’ strong narrative style creates a story that will immediately pull you in, but her imagery and carefully thought-through word choices create layers of meaning that make this novel much more complicated than it appears at first read. While it initially seems to be a Gothic Romance, Wide Sargasso Sea also explores a variety of important questions around race and gender.
Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
Like Wide Sargasso Sea, Disgrace is a short read with many layers of meaning. At first, I didn’t really understand what it was about Disgrace that made me cry so hard. There was just something I couldn’t put my finger on that haunted me about it. Luckily, this book was assigned reading for my Postcolonial Literature class; shortly after I read it, we began to discuss it in-depth.
My professor explained that this novel was set shortly after the Truth and Reconciliation Trials in South Africa. She argued that Disgrace asks the reader if it is really possible to change someone, much less change an entire nation. In other words, the novel acts as an allegory for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson
Canadian writer Eden Robinson was born in Kitimaat, in Northern B.C., and is a member of the Haisla and Heiltsuk First Nations. Monkey Beach, which is also set in Kitimaat, gives readers a glimpse into some of the cultural practices of the Haisla Nation through the main character, Lisamarie Hill.
Monkey Beach simply tells the story of a girl and her family. It rarely outright mentions colonialism, but it is peppered with small references to North America’s history of Native oppression. While Robinson often stops to make an explanation of Haisla words or practices that might be new to someone outside the community, her protagonist feels like an everywoman. Someone both special and typical.
Robinson describes the events of Lisamarie’s life with such clarity it quickly begins to feel real. As a reader, I found it easy to identify with Lisamarie’s thoughts and emotions, despite being born into widely different circumstances. It also made me wonder what my life would have been like if an entire generation of my community had been touched with the travesty of residential schools.
Each of these books force the reader to engage with difficult questions about race, gender, and life in a postcolonial world. These are topics that we all need to consider if we want to understand our place in history. As works of fiction, these novels can also awaken empathy in readers, something that isn’t always easy when you live in a world of “us vs. them”. I encourage you to check them out. Just be careful, because they also might make you cry.