From a delicate sniff to full-blown sobbing on the train, here are 8 genuinely moving books that have us reaching for the tissues
A five-year-old gets separated from his mother on a train. Unable to read, write or recall his address, what are the chances he survives sleeping rough in Calcutta for weeks? What are the chances he’s picked up by an adoption agency and sent to Australia to a new family? Years later, not-so-little Saroo looks for his hometown on Google Earth, miraculously finds it, and sets off to see his family. Want to know the best bit? It’s all completely true.
Kalanithi’s memoir has been called lyrical, life-affirming and, without exception, tragic. But nothing prepares you for the grace and strength with which he portrays his last months facing stage IV metastatic lung cancer. A hugely promising neurosurgeon just months from completing a decade of training, he was diagnosed aged just 37. He studied human biology, English literature and the history and philosophy of science, and so the book unfolds with both precision and beauty until it reaches its inevitable and heartbreaking close.
This book was originally meant for readers the same age as its teenaged protagonists, but came to be enjoyed and loved by millions of people of all ages. If you haven’t read it yet, prepare yourself for an honest, humble and gritty account of star-crossed lovers whose eyes meet across the room ... at the local teenage cancer support group. It’s another story that intersperses the kind of grief that most of us can barely imagine with simple, everyday moments, and it's unafraid to show how messy life can be.
Louisa is a young woman who loses her job at a cafe and finds work caring for Will Traynor, who was paralysed in a motorbike accident. He’s rich and educated but has grown depressed in his wheelchair, and is intent on ending his life. Lou teaches Will gratitude and resilience and that money can’t buy everything; Will teaches Lou the joy of travel and books and, well, being less poor. But has she done enough to persuade him that life is worth living?
There’s nothing Steinbeck does better than tell the stories of disenfranchised Americans trying, usually in vain, to better themselves. In Of Mice and Men – one of the most controversial books of the last century, going from banned to compulsory reading in the space of a few years – two farmhands navigate the murky waters of the Great Depression, fighting prejudice, poverty and outright violence. This book is a tear-jerker for many reasons, but the greatest comes at the end, and we wouldn’t want to give that away...
Also originally for younger readers, Wonder is a reminder that the adversity faced in some children's lives can be even more heartbreaking than in those of their older counterparts. Auggie is ten and has been home-schooled all his life, until middle school. He was born with a rare medical condition which means his face is disfigured, and boy do his new schoolmates remind him of that. The bullying intensifies and tempers flare. It’ll make you want to cry for Auggie, cuddle him, and grab those little bullies by the scruff of the neck...
Set mostly during the Second World War, the conflict is merely a backdrop and the tragedy of Atonement is totally domestic. After thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis’ misunderstands what she sees one night, her family’s future is changed. It’s peppered with heart-in-the-mouth near misses, when years of wrong are so nearly put right, and McEwan’s trademark middle-class silence in the face of emotional turmoil. There’s a false ending, and maybe another, then a twist that will leave you wondering who to trust.
Toni Morrison’s multi-award-winning story of an enslaved mother making a bid for freedom is one of the most moving and poignant stories on this list, and that’s saying something. Of course, it's not even ‘just a story’, as millions of women in history have faced similar trials. Bereavement, abuse and psychological torture all converge in Morrison’s masterpiece, but - as with all the books on this list - it’s infused with hope.