The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley (Ace, $7).
Written for children, this is one of the first books I read in which the protagonist's parents were absent in one way or another. Aerin's mother is dead, her father distant, and her longing for them as tangible as the dragons she will attempt to fight. Reading this fantasy book helped me understand the real world, wherein those who grieve are haunted by the visage of their lost loves.
She Weeps Each Time You're Born by Quan Barry (Vintage, $16).
The heroine of this novel, Rabbit, is a girl fleeing war in 1960s Vietnam. Her mother died in childbirth, and her father is in and out of her life; her makeshift family includes a grandmother and neighbors. The beauty of Quan's prose, the vivid quality of her imagery, how present the ghosts of those loved and lost are all eat the reader alive.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (Penguin, $17).
Here, the narrator's parents are dead, but the grief that pervades the house she shares with her sister and uncle feels oddly muted. It's not until the end that we discover why. Once we do, we find that the parents were there, on every page, lurking.
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (Vintage, $15).
Addie, the Bundren matriarch, dies at the beginning of the novel, and the rest revolves around her absence. Her ghost drives the Bundrens unrelentingly onward, making her husband's failings even more tragic.
News of the World by Paulette Jiles (Morrow, $16).
In this recent novel set in post–Civil War Texas, the longing that 10-year-old Johanna feels for the Kiowa mother she's been taken from is so fierce it's heartbreaking. That makes her discovery of an unlikely father figure even more tender.
The Round House by Louise Erdrich (Harper Perennial, $16).
An Ojibwe mother, hollowed out after being raped, is emotionally unavailable to her 13-year-old son, and her psychic absence sets the North Dakota boy reeling. As Joe comes of age, he does so with a new understanding of the brutality the world can inflict on the undervalued. The person his mother was before will never exist again; she is the story's ghost.
— Jesmyn Ward is the author of Salvage the Bones, winner of 2011's National Book Award for fiction. In Ward's new novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, a black teenager joins his addict mother on a road trip to pick up the boy's father at a Mississippi prison.