Five novel narrators who broke my heart

This month Goodreads asked me to pick a few books I liked that, for whatever the reason, I grouped together in my mind.

I picked narrators who broke my heart.

Here is the Goodreads introduction and my five picks. It appeared originally in the Goodreads July newsletter:

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Chris Bohjalian goes inside the precocious mind of a teen in crisis in his latest novel, Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands. Emily Shepard, 17, is homeless and on the run following a reactor meltdown at a nuclear plant in Vermont, an environmental disaster that may have been her father’s fault. Her first-person narration, told with raw emotion and driven by a tenacious will to survive, guides the reader through her harrowing days following the meltdown. From psychological suspense to historical fiction to ghost stories, Bohjalian has written 17 wide-ranging books, including the bestsellers Midwives (an Oprah’s Book Club pick), The Double Bind, and most recently The Sandcastle Girls and The Light in the Ruins. He recommends five novels told with stirring narration.

Room by Emma Donoghue
“Jack is five years old when he starts to tell us about his life and his little world: a single room he shares with his mother that, as far as he knows, is the entire universe. There really is nothing else but their room, with its skylight and wardrobe and bed. What makes this novel so remarkable is not merely how authentically Donoghue captures the voice of a five-year-old boy, but the deft way she slowly conveys—through Jack, innocent and unknowing—the horrific reality of their captivity.

And what is most heartbreaking? Jack’s mother’s desperate love for him, and the way she will do whatever it takes to keep from him the awful truth of their plight— and then how she will do whatever it takes to give him at least one chance to escape.”

Schroder by Amity Gaige
“Room is about a mother’s lioness-like love for her male cub; Schroder is about a father’s determination to regain his daughter. In the midst of a divorce he didn’t want and still doesn’t understand, Eric Schroder desires more than anything to have his six-year-old once more in his life. He is losing her, he fears, just as he lost his wife. And so he abducts the girl. A bad decision? You bet. It’s especially misguided in light of the secret about his identity that Eric has been harboring for years. It is [heartbreaking to] watch Eric make one spectacularly bad decision after another, all because, like any decent father, he loves his daughter so very, very much.”

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
“There is some required reading in middle and high schools that drives young adults to their Xbox consoles. We all know the sort of 19th-century doorstops I’m talking about. And then there are staples such as Flowers for Algernon, the wrenchingly beautiful tale of Charlie Gordon. Charlie is chosen to follow the path of a laboratory mouse named Algernon. Why? Because Charlie has a low IQ, and an experimental operation has dramatically increased the mouse’s intelligence. Now it’s time to try the procedure on a human. Keyes, who passed away in June, skillfully handles the rise (and fall) of Charlie’s IQ in the narrative. This is no small accomplishment as a novelist.

But in Charlie, Keyes also gives us a writer who—regardless of whether he is the smartest guy in the lab or merely a baker’s assistant—will break your heart. ‘Please,’ Charlie writes at the end of his story, his once brilliant mind failing fast, ‘if you get a chanse put some flowrs on Algernons grave in the bak yard.'”

The Giant’s House by Elizabeth McCracken
“I’m a big fan of Elizabeth McCracken and the poignancy that buttresses her sly humor. This novel is one of the quirkiest love stories I’ve read: A young, misanthropic librarian named Peggy Cort tells us on the first page of her tale, ‘People think they’re interesting. That’s their first mistake,’ and then falls for a boy who soon will become the Tallest Man in the World. It’s clear that no good can come from this relationship, and certainly the pair’s romance is doomed. One scene toward the end of the novel, when Peggy is sobbing in the bathroom, has stayed with me nearly 18 years now.

But what might be the most heartbreaking (and lovely) part of Peggy’s story? The gift the giant leaves Peggy Cort and the way it will change her forever.”

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
“We all know the narrator; we all know the story. We all want a father like Atticus. But is there anything more heartbreaking than a young girl’s discovery of the injustice that marks our world? Of the violence that mars towns great and small? Likewise, is there anything more affecting than a young girl’s realization of just how much she is loved by a parent—what she and her brother mean to their father?

Of all the lines in this remarkable novel, the ones that always break my heart are the last two: ‘He turned out the light and went into Jem’s room. He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.'”

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Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.