Stories can heal both the reader and the writer. For a writer who has experienced clinical depression, the very act of writing can serve as a part of healing, and sometimes it could be the only thing needed to heal them. Sometimes, a writer’s struggle to break free from the imaginary prison walls and chains of depression brings forth a story that finally sets them free and gives the readers glimpses of that freedom. This list of novels on triumphing depression covers three main phases of recovery – surviving the condition which to use a very simple but realistic metaphor is like being out frozen in the cold with no way to move one’s limbs or speak, followed by the awkward and often painful process of healing as the mind thaws and slowly begins responding to the world and finally moving forward into life, whole and complete. I chose not to include some important novels on this theme such as The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath’s lyrical ode to her life as a depressed writer and It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini, though those gifted writers did triumph over depression in the end by writing these stories and sharing them with the world. Everyone who has experienced clinical depression deserves a happy ending whether they are readers, writers or characters as in the below novels.
Mild spoilers may lie ahead.
1. The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
“Between life and death there is a library,’ she said. ‘And within that library, the shelves go on for ever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived.” Matt Haig, The Midnight Library
The Midnight Library responds to the existential dilemma contained in the metaphor of the fig tree, one of the much quoted symbols from The Bell Jar by Svlvia Plath. Instead of standing paralysed before the tree, uncertain of which fig to choose, what if Esther had been offered a taste from different figs to help her decide? Nora in The Midnight Library realises that she has the choice and the power to shape her future as she hovers on the threshold between life and death in a surreal library of infinite alternate lives from which she can choose to experience multiple lives before selecting one that she likes. This genre-bending novel inspired by the concept of multiverses reaffirms each individual’s power to create their own reality. To someone who has lived with depression, the realisation that one is free to live life on one’s own terms, something which is taken for granted by the average person, can often be life-changing.
2. The Elegance of The Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
“There’s so much humanity in a love of trees, so much nostalgia for our first sense of wonder, so much power in just feeling our own insignificance when we are surrounded by nature…just thinking about trees and their indifferent majesty and our love for them teaches us how ridiculous we are – vile parasites squirming on the surface of the earth – and at the same time how deserving of life we can be, when we can honor this beauty that owes us nothing.” Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog
One of the two main characters in this elegantly composed poem of a novel is twelve year old Paloma, an intelligent and sensitive child who reminds one of J D Salinger’s Holden Caulfield and Franny Glass in the way she sees most of the people around her as snobs and is so disillusioned with her privileged and luxurious life that she has decided to kill herself on her thirteenth birthday unless she finds meaning beyond her ‘vacuous bourgeois existence’. The story is about how she finds that meaning through her association with Renee, the unassuming concierge who strives to hide her intelligence and refinement from the world, and what convinces her to live. Through long self-reflective passages and the gentle interactions between the main characters, this charming novel examines the primal question on the meaning of life and is so exquisitely written that reading it allows the reader to experience several moments of such beauty in the world that makes life worth living.
3. High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
“It’s brilliant, being depressed; you can behave as badly as you like.” Nick Hornby, High Fidelity
Told with wit, warmth and humour, Nick Hornby‘s first novel High Fidelity, a story about Rob Fleming, a depressed music record store owner recovering from his latest break-up is anything but depressing. When we meet Rob for the first time, he is busy making the list of his top five breakups in a bid to understand what went wrong with his latest girlfriend Laura who has left him. Rob’s juvenile attitude to life and the realisation that he had been sleepwalking through it is brought out through the aftermaths of his complex relationship with Laura as he takes a journey through his past relationships and finds out the reason behind his fear of commitment. High Fidelity is the coming of age novel of a grown-up Holden Caulfield who eventually finds his way home.
4. Brilliant by Roddy Doyle
“’Brilliant’ was a brilliant word. It lit everything around it. It was hard to see the gloom when the word was constantly bursting all over the city, like a firework display that never ended.” Roddy Doyle, Brilliant
This illustrated children’s novel about a group of kids chasing away the ‘Black dog of depression’ from the city of Dublin can be read at many levels. It gently informs the child reader about the severity of the condition and suggests how to fight it with positive words that light up the mind and clear away the darkness cast there by depression. It is not words themselves, but their meaning that holds the power, the children realise as they go after the black dog to chase it away, and of course the Black Dog of Depression does not stand a chance against them. A simple and life-affirming tale about how children light up the world because they are the future.
5. A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby
“Hard is trying to rebuild yourself, piece by piece, with no instruction book, and no clue as to where all the important bits are supposed to go.” Nick Hornby, A Long Way Down
For a novel that deals with the serious issue of suicidal depression, A Long Way Down is chock full of humour and philosophical insights in direct, down to earth prose. On New Year’s eve, four people who are as unlike each other as possible meet on the roof of Topper’s House, a high rise building in London where they had gone with the intention of killing themselves. Four potential suicides – a popular TV star ostracised due to a scandal, a teenager battling personal demons over her dysfunctional family, a single mother who is tired of caring for her challenged son and an aspiring rock star who is reduced to delivering pizzas, find a support system in each other. The theme of suicidal depression is discussed objectively through the points of view of the main protagonists and Hornby lets the message of sticking on to life slip through smoothly without resorting to sentimental excesses or melodrama.
6. Franny and Zooey by J D Salinger
“Don’t you know who that Fat Lady really is? Ah, buddy. Ah, buddy. It’s Christ Himself. Christ Himself, buddy.” J D Salinger, Franny and Zooey
What can one write that has not been already written about the Glass family members? Like many intelligent people, most of the child prodigies of the Glass family tend to take themselves too seriously and end up incapacitated and disillusioned about the meaning and purpose of it all until a sibling advises them, often in a longwinded monologue that entertains the reader with dry self-depracating humour and then surprises them with sudden insights of wisdom.
‘An artist’s only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else’s’, says Zooey whose pep talk to help Franny overcome a nervous breakdown is solid life advice that will satisfy both the seeker and artist in a reader.
7. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
“In the end, what matters is this: I survived.” Gail Honeyman, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine
It is a testimony to the author’s talent which makes this novel about a sad, lonely woman with terribly low self esteem and crippling social anxiety into a funny and insightful story. Eleanor’s achingly lonely life takes a turn when she chances upon a colleague on the road and her life begins to change for the better through a series of related incidents. There are hints of a chilling backstory of how Eleanor was traumatised to such an extent that she learnt to accept physical, verbal and emotional abuse as a normal thing, but the ending is positive and realistically hopeful. Darling Rose Gold, a very well-written novel by Stephanie Wrobel has a similar theme of narcissistic parental abuse, but Eleanor Oliphant scores higher among the two for the way it allows the main character to heal and grow beyond the painful memories of the past.
8. For Esmé—with Love and Squalor by J D Salinger
” Their voices were melodious and unsentimental, almost to the point where a somewhat more denominational man than myself might, without straining, have experienced levitation.” J D Salinger, For Esmé with Love and Squalor
This short story from the collection Nine Stories by J D Salinger is worth holding on its own in this list. The narrator who is severely traumatised from the war starts to heal when he receives an unexpected letter and a gift and begins to recollect meeting a precocious young girl and her brother. This is a perfect piece of art in its construction, narrative, characterisation, dialogue and above all, the way it diffuses hope and strength through the way the narrator shifts from a state of suffering an uncontrollable tic on the side of his face induced by PTSD into a serene and ‘almost ecstatic sleepiness’.
The story can be read here: For Esmé – with Love and Squalor – J. D. Salinger (southerncrossreview.org)
9. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
“But even if we don’t have the power to choose where we come from we can still choose where we go from there. We can still do things.” Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower
This YA book about fifteen year old Charlie Kelmeckis who was clinically depressed from childhood invokes mixed feelings from some readers due to the first person voice which sounds more like that of a young child than a teenager and the number of heavy social issues packed into the novel including drugs, fights, angst, abuse and incest. Despite the heavy themes and the simplistic narrative, the power of the novel lies in the way it shows how a traumatised child who had gone into his shell in a catatonic state, can be healed so completely that he feels himself expand in joy as he looks forward to his future. “You are alive. And you stand up and see the lights on the buildings and everything that makes you wonder. And you’re listening to that song, and that drive with the people who you love most in this world. And in this moment, I swear, we are infinite.” (Stephen Chbosky, Perks of Being a Wallflower).
10. The Reengineers by Indu Muralidharan
“Become aware of yourself. Everything will come to you, Chinmay, when you are in that most wonderful place on earth, the centre of your being. If you learn just one thing from this book, let it be that once you are aware of yourself, depression cannot hold you back any more than a tiger can be trapped in a spider’s web.” Indu Muralidharan, The Reengineers
The Reengineers is the story of fifteen year old Chinmay Narayan who plans to kill himself in a desperate bid to take control of his life from his overbearing parents. Things get worse when Chinmay finds out that he is a character in a book and his entire life has been predetermined. In a surreal encounter, Chinmay finds out that he can be the author of his life and also the hero and the realisation transforms him from a timid, suicidal teenager to a young man who knows that he is in charge of his destiny.
“Having lived, or rather, having sleepwalked for ten years through the desolate wastelands of depression, I survived to reach the other side. I believe that this validates my claim to write this book for you.” The Reengineers, Indu Muralidharan
Some excerpts from The Reengineers on overcoming depression can be read here.
What are your favourite novels with this particular theme? Please feel free to add them in the comments.