The best books on confronting trauma or loss

Beth Castrodale Author Of I Mean You No Harm
By Beth Castrodale

Who am I?

All of my novels explore, in some way, how the characters are affected by trauma or loss, and how they respond to these difficulties over time. This comes partly from my impatience with the notion of “closure” and with the idea that we can ever truly find it after a traumatic event or a significant loss. I’m drawn to fiction and nonfiction that doesn’t shy away from the messiness of finding a way to live with these difficulties, or trying to. In addition to writing fiction, I’ve spent nearly ten years recommending novels and story collections through my Small Press Picks website.


I wrote...

I Mean You No Harm

By Beth Castrodale,

Book cover of I Mean You No Harm

What is my book about?

Layla Shawn has spent most of her thirty-two years estranged from her career-criminal father, Vic Doloro, and haunted by the mysterious death of her mother. Then Vic dies, leaving Layla—an unemployed artist—a tempting inheritance of ill-gotten money. 

Urging her to take the money is Vic’s other daughter, Bette, with whom Layla shares a troubled past. On a cross-country road trip, the two women mend fences, but Layla finds herself caught in the middle of an unsettled and lethal score between her father and a man who knows more than he should about her mother's death. As Layla zeroes in on the truth and wrestles with her own demons, she finds herself face to face with a killer.

The books I picked & why

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The Body Papers: A Memoir

By Grace Talusan,

Book cover of The Body Papers: A Memoir

Why this book?

This memoir is one of the most compelling accounts of confronting trauma that I’ve ever read. In the case of the author, the traumas are multiple: fear of deportation due to her “illegal” status; years of sexual abuse by her paternal grandfather; and later in life, the discovery that she carries a gene that leaves her susceptible to breast and ovarian cancer. I was moved as I learned how Talusan found the wordsboth as a writer and as a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a romantic partner, and a citizen—to speak of these difficulties. Her writing about this journey is both spare and powerful, and it bears re-reading and deep reflection. Whenever I return to this book, I find inspiration.


If the Ice Had Held

By Wendy J. Fox,

Book cover of If the Ice Had Held

Why this book?

I love the complex, nuanced way in which this novel explores the long-range consequences of a single tragedy: in the case of this book, the death of a young man who was on the edge of becoming a father. As we enter the perspectives of his sister, the mother of his child, and (in later years) his child, we learn how lives can be rebuilt in the aftermath of a loss, a time when survivors can feel hopelessly broken. We also learn how new—and sometimes unexpectedbonds can be formed. In other words, we see that tragedies can leave more than darkness in their wake. I took hope from this book, and it provided a refreshing perspective, especially in these troubling times.


The Distortions

By Christopher Linforth,

Book cover of The Distortions

Why this book?

Although the Yugoslav Wars (1991-2001) aren’t always addressed head-on in this sweeping and revelatory story collection, they haunt nearly every tale in the book. Collectively, the stories shed light on the varied human costs of war, and on how they can reverberate across time. The book has inspired me to learn more about the Yugoslav Wars, and it feels especially relevant in light of the Russia-Ukraine war, which also seems destined to have deep and lasting repercussions. As I read the stories, I considered how immersing us in the lives of those affected by wars can bring home these repercussions so much more effectively than, say, news accounts. I admire the breadth of this collection, which also includes thought-provoking stories about challenged romantic relationships, making art, and more.


You'll Be Fine

By Jen Michalski,

Book cover of You'll Be Fine

Why this book?

This novel achieves something that, as a writer, I think is one of the hardest things to pull off: tackling troubling, emotionally fraught material yet finding moments to make readers laugh out loud. The novel’s protagonist, Alex, has plenty of challenges to deal with: the loss of her mother to an apparent drug overdose, a difficult relationship with her can’t-seem-to-grow-up brother, and an uncertain reconnection with an old flame. Through Alex, Michalski manages to both confront these challenges and find humor in them. As I read the book and thought of the difficulties in my own life, I considered how I needed to take a page from this character’s playbook. Another element that leavens the novel’s heavier material is a plot thread that will delight rom-com enthusiasts.


Rites

By Savannah Johnston,

Book cover of Rites

Why this book?

In every story in this heart-rending collection, the protagonists—all of them Indigenous people—are dealing with some of the most challenging circumstances that can be imagined: the tragic deaths of loved ones, the trials of trying to rebuild one’s life post-incarceration, and the fallout from substance abuse, to name just some of the difficulties the stories address. At the same time, most of the protagonists exhibit some form of resilience in response to these challenges, and I was deeply moved by the variety of this resilience, by the characters’ determination, and by Johnston’s insights into their experiences. I also love the ways in which the stories are connected by place: All of them unfold in Oklahoma, and Johnston brings their settings to life.


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