There are lots of things that I’m not particularly proud of; my driving, the sight of my feet in sandals, my behaviour at a free buffet. I am also, it must be confessed, an easy crier. Tales of adversity, children sleeping, Thora Hird, any of these things can have me shielding my eyes with my hand. It’s not a particularly attractive tendency, but one I’ve learnt to live with, and at least I’m a little tougher now than I once was. As a child I used to fall to pieces weekly at the closing theme to The Incredible Hulk, and one of my earliest, most shaming memories, is having to leave the room during a Royal Variety Performance when a plucky red-haired orphan girl sang about how the sun was going to come out to-mor-row, bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow there’d be sun.
I’ve toughened up a bit since then, I hope. There was a time when, say, Truly Madly, Deeply could make me gulp like a landed fish, but I rarely cry at movies now, and often find myself resenting it when it happens. More often than not, it feels as if some terrible trick has been played on me, that I’ve been manipulated into an emotion I don’t really feel. The Shawshank Redemption is a particular bug-bear of mine for this very reason. Its like Morgan Freeman is sitting in the chair on one side, Tim Robbins on the other, both of them pinching me very, very hard. A film-maker has all kinds of equipment in their arsenal to get an emotional response – sawing strings, snot-nosed actors, fine cinematography, the communal experience of sitting in the cinema in the dark. A book has only words, and crying at a novel seems to be a far less common experience. There’s an old movie poster cliché – ‘you’ll laugh, you’ll cry’ – and I suppose my latest novel, One Day, is a direct attempt to get exactly this reaction, and to revive that most unfashionable of genres, the ‘weepy’, but to make it feel modern, timely, and hopefully appealing to both men and women.
Of course, such a response is highly subjective, and one reader’s pathos is another’s mawkishness. Here then, is a particularly personal list of books that have, at some time in my life, caused me to shed a slightly embarrassed tear. In compiling this list I’ve left out many fine books which are genuinely upsetting; Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man, for instance, a truly great book, but also a deeply distressing one. The books below provoke another kind of tearfulness, perhaps a more shallow, sentimental kind, but one that’s simultaneously sad and yet strangely uplifting.
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