The tremendous success of the book and Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” has shown us that there’s a hunger for literary explorations of suicide. Perhaps this is because the world grows more complicated all the time, and fiction offers a safe distance from which we can investigate this looming topic. For Suicide Prevention Month, we’ve assembled a list of novels about suicide that, while not all explicitly healing, provide clarity and, above all, solidarity.
It’s London on New Year’s Eve, and four strangers find themselves on top of a building with the same plan: to commit suicide rather than sing “Auld Lang Syne.” The coincidence inspires them to form a ragtag support club – a gloomy sort of “Breakfast Club” – and the results are both witty and deeply felt in this 2005 novel from Nick Hornby.
It’s a little on the nose to include a selection with “suicide” actually in the title but this 1970s Michigan-set book by Jeffrey Eugenides about a gaggle of lovely teenaged sisters who take their lives is smart on so many levels. Told from the perspective of the high school boys who lusted after them, it’s a rattling examination of repression, female sexuality, and sublimated, beautifully rendered rage. The film adaptation – Sofia Coppola’s debut feature – perfectly captures this nightmare and dream in a millennial-pink swoon.
Arguably ground zero for suicide novels, Sylvia Plath’s autobiographical novel features a nineteen-year-old women’s college student who can’t connect with anything, least of all her fancy New York magazine summer internship. Few books have so lucidly captured the numbness and anxiety associated with coming of age, and the author’s poetic eye offers metaphors that double as life preservers.
There are myriad reasons to read this Pulitzer Prize winner: its deft entwinement of three women’s lives and three twentieth-century eras; its nod to Virginia Woolf’s double entendres around creativity and creation. As an examination of the reasons some people choose to leave this Earth – the truths they cannot share, the pain they cannot bear – Cunningham’s book is especially a revelation.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
If Goethe had come of age today rather than the late 1770s, he might have been a Goth singer or Instagram star. Instead, he wrote this epistolary novel that is reportedly a thinly veiled account of his own painful youth. About a sensitive artist who is so disappointed by life and love that he plans to take his life, it is widely and deservedly lauded as one of the greatest German novels of the era, and, with its hand-wringing expressions of unquenched passion, a precursor of the Romantic movement.
A departure from the author’s “Unearthly” book series, this is a good example of why Young Adult should be valued as highly as other forms of literature. Told from the brass-tacks perspective of an eighteen-year-old math star whose brother has just committed suicide, this novel by Cynthia Hand takes the form of journal entries written upon a well-meaning shrink’s request, and is clear-hearted and surprisingly funny. “Foxhole fraternity” is the name of the game here.
When the suicide attempt of a twenty-four-year-old woman with seemingly everything – looks, money, loving parents – results in a fatal heart condition, she recognizes how much she wishes to live. It may sound like a Lifetime for-TV premise, but The Alchemist author Paulo Coelho uses it as a launching pad to explore the isolating nature of madness and upward mobility.
Told from the perspective of Tender Branson, a survivor of the fictional Creedish Church death cult, this novel moves backward chronologically through the ten years in which the group prepares to leave the Earth. Ostensibly satire, Survivor gleefully deconstructs the institutions to which we all subscribe in order to get through the day. Leave it to punk rock Chuck Paluhniak to tackle mass suicide with such a vinegar vitality.
This list would hardly be complete without Kate Chopin’s seminal feminist novel about an 1890s New Orleans wife and mother who does not know how to live when she falls in love with another man. As a testament to the disruption female desire poses to traditional society, it lives right up there with Madame Bovary. Chopin’s sympathy for her subject – female desperation – is profound.