The best books about grief and complicated family dynamics

The Books I Picked & Why

The Stranding

By Kate Sawyer

Book cover of The Stranding

Why this book?

I’m a sucker for post-apocalyptic fiction and the premise of this one – a woman survives the end of the world by hiding inside a whale – had me desperate to read it. And this is a book that really lives up to that intriguing hook. I loved the character of Ruth, who runs away from a complicated relationship to the other side of the world, only for civilisation to collapse in an unexplained series of catastrophes. I grieved alongside her for all the abrupt endings and terrible losses, but found so much hope in her survival. It’s a really beautiful book that I still think about now. 

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By Maggie O'Farrell

Book cover of Hamnet

Why this book?

The story of a fascinating woman largely ignored by history? Yes please, sign me up for it immediately! Hamnet tells the story of Agnes, wife of Shakespeare, and the tragedy in their family that inspired one of his most famous plays. It peels back the layers of time, creating an intimate portrait of family life that had me utterly absorbed. I cried so much reading this book that I gave myself a headache but kept on reading anyway because it was so gorgeous, so powerful and so incredibly moving. It evokes the strength and magic of motherhood, the complexity of grief, and the enduring nature of love. It’s an unforgettable read. 

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Behind the Scenes at the Museum

By Kate Atkinson

Book cover of Behind the Scenes at the Museum

Why this book?

My copy of this book is battered, dog-eared, and creased from the sheer number of times I’ve read and re-read it. It’s an absolutely glorious family saga, recounted by Ruby who narrates her own conception in the first chapter and takes us back through generations weaving together all the different stories that lead up to the events of her own life. It’s brilliantly funny and heartbreaking and it skewers the oddities and dysfunction of family relationships so perfectly. Characters wrestle with their grief, they deny it and suppress it and it rears up to overwhelm them but ultimately they find their way through. I’m with them every step of the way, unable to put the book down whenever I pick it up again…and again! 

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Anybody Out There?

By Marian Keyes

Book cover of Anybody Out There?

Why this book?

This is my favourite book from my all-time favourite author. I will never forget reading this for the first time, in my then-boyfriend’s flat at the start of our relationship. I ignored him all day (it’s ok, we ended up married) until I’d read it cover to cover. Marian Keyes knows how to pack a devastating emotional punch within her witty, entertaining novels and this is one of the most brutal. It’s a crystal-clear insight into grief, a book that made me sob uncontrollably, and there is no one better at presenting the frustrations and comforting joy of family dynamics and friendships. I don’t think there is any other book that has wrought so many tears from me, both of sadness and laughter.  

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The Song of Achilles

By Madeline Miller

Book cover of The Song of Achilles

Why this book?

Readers on TikTok regularly upload footage of themselves weeping over this beautiful, doomed romance between the mythical ancient Greek hero Achilles and his lover Patroclus and I can see why. It’s lyrical, poetic, sweeping, and epic, and it’s a book that transformed a story and characters I thought I knew into something so much richer. But on re-reading, I find myself intrigued more and more by Thetis, the cold and forbidding goddess, who finds herself in the horrifying position of being an immortal mother to an all-too mortal son. There are so many lines in this novel that will stay with me forever, but none more so than the ending – you’ll have to read it to find out why! 

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