Karolina Waclawiak is the author of the novels The Invaders and How to Get Into the Twin Palms. In her new book, Life Events, a woman mourning her mother and her expiring marriage seeks a second wind by training to be a death doula.
The Outline Trilogy by Rachel Cusk (2014–18).
Cusk's three recent novels — Outline, Transit, and Kudos — redefined what fiction writing could be for me. The narrator, a divorced British writer, is intent on withholding as much as she can about herself even as she pulls intimate life details from nearly everyone she meets. What the narrator's eye falls on says more about her than she would ever be willing to admit herself.
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Troubling Love by Elena Ferrante (1992).
Ferrante's slim early novel, about a daughter's obsessive grief over the loss of her mother, is a work of genius. It unfolds at the furious pace of a thriller while following the narrator through the streets of Naples as she tries to piece together the woman who made her.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (2017).
Pachinko is breathtaking in scope as it builds a portrait of an early-20th-century Korean family who eventually immigrate to Japan to create a new life for themselves. Lee paints an incredibly complex intergenerational portrait of immigration, familial ties, and family secrets. The word "epic" was made for novels like this.
The Notebook Trilogy by Ágota Kristóf (1986–91).
In an unnamed country split apart by war, two twin brothers must employ brutality to survive and grow up in a brutal landscape. In The Notebook, The Proof, and The Third Lie, Kristof was undoubtedly addressing the complexities of postwar Eastern Europe but chose a fairy tale–like setting to tease out a nuanced exploration of morality.
The Afterlife by Donald Antrim (2006).
Antrim's memoir, which tries to make sense of his alcoholic mother after her death, is equal parts beautiful and painful. While he never shies away from the damage she caused, he also treats her story with tenderness and awe. There's plenty of dark humor, too.
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (2005).
Didion's seminal book on grief is a clear-eyed description of losing oneself after losing a loved one. In the aftermath of the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, Didion examines grief with unflinching precision. In doing so, she provides a road map of a profound loss of control that is both revelatory and hypnotic.
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