Ultimate Guide to Novels on (Healing from) Trauma
I’ve fallen back on books at the most difficult times in my life more times than I can count. They’ve been a comfort, an escape, and at times a way to help me put into words and make sense of the thing I was experiencing and what it did to me. I know that I’m not alone in that powerful experience of books assisting me in those times. For that reason, The Ultimate Guide to Novels on (Healing from) Trauma has been on my to-write list for years now. Like my Grief- and Disability, Illness and Body Guides, it’s very close to my heart, and one that will be forever changing and expanding as long as I read. So even more so than my previous guides: consider this one a work in progress. Because of the sheer length of this list, I will keep descriptions limited to a few key-words and link to its corresponding Goodreads-pages for a full plot-synopsis. Major trigger warnings will be mentioned for each book; note that these are “general”, and therefor can never be exhaustive.
My recommendation will be clustered by genre, and sometimes theme, but opening this post will be my personal all-time favourite books that helped me. I consider this list a success if at least one other person finds a book that helps them.
Books that helped me personally
Genre: literary fiction, sci-fi Synopsis: Area X has been cut off from the rest of the world for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; that ended in disaster. After 11 failed expeditions, it’s up to the twelfth expedition to take over. The group is made up of four women: an anthropologist; a surveyor; a psychologist, the de facto leader; and our narrator, a biologist. Their mission is to map the terrain, record all observations of their surroundings and of one another, and, above all, avoid being contaminated by Area X itself. They arrive expecting the unexpected, and Area X delivers—but it’s the surprises that came across the border with them and the secrets the expedition members are keeping from one another that change everything. Why it helped me: Annihilation has grown into my all-time favourite novel upon multiple rereads over the years for many reasons. Chief among them is the feeling of absolute alienation and under-your-skin-dread that Vandermeer captures in his narrative. It may be a coincidence that Area X has so many references and parallels to cancer within it, but to me, that parallel was perfect. Although this book isn’t specifically about cancer at any point, it’s the best representation of the dread and fears I experienced with cancer I’ve ever come across. Annihilation captures a level of deep-rooted discomfort; a defamiliarization of everything that should be safe and normal, of knowing something inside you is wrong, and out to destroy you. It also captures the experience that I personally had and could never express: the experience of returning from that place of horror and having no words to describe, or no people to share it with, as no one else was there with you.
Annihilation is a cerebral book and its depiction of trauma is one of the least literal ones on this list. Still, that abstractness is what makes it so perfect to me, and gives it the opportunity to perhaps have the same effect on many people with a variety of experiences.
Genre: magical realism, middle-grade Synopsis: Conor has the same dream every night, ever since his mother first fell ill, ever since she started the treatments that don't quite seem to be working. But tonight is different. Tonight, when he wakes, there's a visitor at his window. It's ancient, elemental, a force of nature. And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor. It wants the truth. Patrick Ness takes the final idea of the late, award-winning writer Siobhan Dowd and weaves an extraordinary and heartbreaking tale of mischief, healing and above all, the courage it takes to survive. Why it helped me: This was one of the first novels about the death of a parent I read after my mother’s passing, and the first time I felt so completely seen in that experience. It was also the first time I read something that captures that specific kind of grief I’d been dealing with for years: not the one following a death, but the one preceding an imminent one. The one that comes from seeing a loved-one in decline and the maddening linger of never knowing when the sword will drop. Patrick Ness and Siobhan Dowd did an incredible job of capturing the many ugly, bittersweet and heart wrenching moments of Connor’s journey, and I bawled my eyes out on 4 separate occasions. For the record: that’s the most I’ve ever cried whilst reading a book.
These were cathartic cries though: tears of recognition, of remembrance and realization that the thoughts you have during the time leading up to a parents death can be monstrous and loving at the same time.
Genre: magical realism, coming of age Synopsis: A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn't thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she'd claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy. Why it helped me: there’s something darkly magical about the way Gaiman captured the experience of looking back on the warped memories of a traumatic event in childhood, years down the line. The way we make sense of the world as kids is different than we do as adults, and the realizations that come with revisiting the distorted places and memories we created to make sense of the senseless are key themes in this novel.
Genre: contemporary fiction, coming of age Synopsis: We follow the story of Jamie and Annie, an inseparable pair of siblings; basically twins except for their date of birth. Alike in almost every way, they promised to always take care of each other while facing the challenges of growing up different in suburban America. And when life became too much for them, they’d escape into their own space; a wooeded area just behind their house. They transform this place into the land of Gumlea, where fantasy and reality merge together, and where nobody could find them. Until Jamie disappears, and Annie is left behind… Unable to process any other faith for her brother, Annie becomes convinced that Jamie has escaped into Gumlea one final time, and she will do anything to follow him there, and bring him back. Told from three separate perspectives, we witness the fallout of a tragedy on a family, friends and a small town community; from the harsh reality of growing up, to the stories we tell ourselves to keep going…
Genre: contemporary fiction, coming of age Synopsis: Marin hasn’t spoken to anyone from her old life since the day she left everything behind. No one knows the truth about those final weeks. Not even her best friend, Mabel. But even thousands of miles away from the California coast, at college in New York, Marin still feels the pull of the life and tragedy she’s tried to outrun. Now, months later, alone in an emptied dorm for winter break, Marin waits. Mabel is coming to visit, and Marin will be forced to face everything that’s been left unsaid and finally confront the loneliness that has made a home in her heart. Why it helped me: In short: this is the most hopeful book about hopelessness, the most connecting book about loneliness and the most uplifting book about sadness I’ve ever read. My experience with this book is described in my Goodreads review, so I’ll refer to that instead of repeating myself.
Genre: horror Synopsis: When the Creeds move into a beautiful old house in rural Maine, it all seems too good to be true: physician father, beautiful wife, charming little daughter, adorable infant son-and now an idyllic home. As a family, they've got it all...right down to the friendly car. But the nearby woods hide a blood-chilling truth-more terrifying than death itself-and hideously more powerful. The Creeds are going to learn that sometimes dead is better. Why it helped me: I’ve read quite a lot of books that romanticize grief and trauma (intentionally or unintentionally), or try to soften its edges. When I think of my time being in the middle of it though, all I can remember is the depth of horror and darkness of it. PetSematary was my first confrontation with grief, mourning and remembrance depicted in all its horrors and ugliness in a novel. Sometimes you may want to confront some of your personal demons in a non-sugar-coated way. Pet Sematary is the way to go, on the topic of grief.
Genre: young adult contemporary Synopsis: When everything has been taken from you, what else is there to do but run? So that’s what Annabelle does—she runs from Seattle to Washington, DC, through mountain passes and suburban landscapes, from long lonely roads to college towns. She’s not ready to think about the why yet, just the how—muscles burning, heart pumping, feet pounding the earth. But no matter how hard she tries, she can’t outrun the tragedy from the past year, or the person—The Taker—that haunts her. Followed by Grandpa Ed in his RV and backed by her brother and two friends (her self-appointed publicity team), Annabelle becomes a reluctant activist as people connect her journey to the trauma from her past. Her cross-country run gains media attention and she is cheered on as she crosses state borders, and is even thrown a block party and given gifts. The support would be nice, if Annabelle could escape the guilt and the shame from what happened back home. They say it isn’t her fault, but she can’t feel the truth of that. Why it helped me: A Heart in a Body in the World is the best depiction of PTSD and survivors guilt I’ve ever encountered in a YA-novel. Although our experiences are completely different, the aftermath and the (flawed!!) coping mechanisms that Annabelle falls into mirrored much of my own, to the point where it was often difficult to read this book, yet utterly cathartic to do so.
Genre: literary fiction Synopsis: Franny Stone has always been the kind of woman who is able to love but unable to stay. Leaving behind everything but her research gear, she arrives in Greenland with a singular purpose: to follow the last Arctic terns in the world on what might be their final migration to Antarctica. Franny talks her way onto a fishing boat, and she and the crew set sail, traveling ever further from shore and safety. But as Franny’s history begins to unspool—a passionate love affair, an absent family, a devastating crime—it becomes clear that she is chasing more than just the birds. When Franny's dark secrets catch up with her, how much is she willing to risk for one more chance at redemption? Why it helped me: like with We Are Okay, my personal experience with this novel is recorded in my Goodreads review, which can be found here.
Genre: middle grade horror Synopsis: For as long as anyone could remember there wasn't a house at the dead end of Juniper Drive… until one day there was. When Jac first sees the House, she's counting down to the five-year anniversary of her cancer diagnosis, when she hopefully will be declared NED, or "no evidence of disease." But with a house appearing, and her hands shaking, and a fall off her bike, Jac is starting to wonder if these are symptoms--or if something stranger is happening. Two classmates dare Jac and her friend Hazel to enter the House. Walking through the front door is the way in. It's definitely not the way out. There's something off about the House; Jac can feel it. The same way she knows it's no coincidence that the House appeared for her five-year marker. It wants something from her. And she won't be able to get out until she figures out what. Why it helped me: Over the years following my own childhood cancer, I’ve only ever encountered two versions of books about that subject: the ones where the kid is cured and lives happily ever after, and the ones where the kid dies so the other characters can have character-growth. My story (the one where the kid lives, but things are never the same and cancer will always be a part of their lives) was never covered, especially not in children’s fiction. Until I read This Appearing House. I deeply wished this book would’ve existed when I was a kid, but happily take it anyway and rejoice in the knowledge that kids who lived, and continue to live, through cancer will now have a middlegrade story to find themselves in.
Genre: middle grade, magical realism Synopsis: Sophie, a curious child confined to bed by a cancer, is drawn into a mysterious and terrifying play, performed by her toys, that starts to mirror events in her own life. Why it helped me: : I put this one second last on my list, since I haven’t read this book since I was 7 years old and (probably) never plan to reread it again. My love for it is therefore solely based on the time and place I read it in. I was gifted this book when I was 7, going through chemotherapy for cancer. I didn’t know what the book was about or why it was given to me. The slow realization and recognition of the events that were unfolding (specifically the moment of the wind blowing away Sophies hair) are etched in my memory forever.
It may sound cruel to give a book like this to a kid going through chemo. Yet I apparently developed a strange fascination with it, reading it over and over again, as if processing my own experience through it. I wanted to see it, to confront it in a way that was tangible and comprehensible, and this book helped me do it. For that, I will forever be grateful to it.
Genre: fantasy Synopsis: this one needs no explanation: the journey of the golden trio and the boy who lived exploring and saving the Wizarding World. Why it helped me: it’s a controversial statement to put a book that caused many others trauma on a list of books that helped me deal with trauma. But for the sake of honesty, I couldn’t leave it out. The Harry Potter series helped me in multiple ways, on multiple occasions. From the pure and comforting escapism of diving into this familiar world (either through the books or movies), to the great portrayal of Harry’s journey through grief and trauma; these books supported me in the moments where I felt most alone.
Triggerwarnings: war-crimes, WWII, anti-semetism
2. The Body Keeps the Score – Bessel Van der Kolk Genre: informational, non-fiction, self-help
3. In the Dream House – Carmen Maria Machado Genre: memoir in verse Triggerwarnings: abusive (same-sex) relationship
4. What my Bones Know – Stephanie Foo Genre: memoir Triggerwarnings: parental abuse (verbal, physical and neclect), cPTSD,
borderline personality disorder
1. In Ascencion – Martin MacInnis Genre: Literary fiction, sci-fi Themes: childhood abuse/negect
2. The Perfect Golden Circle – Benjamin Myers Genre: literary fiction Themes: war trauma, PTSD
3. The Light Through the Leaves – Glendy Vanderah Genre: literary fiction
Themes: missing child, divorce
4. My Dark Vanessa – Kate Elizabeth Russell Genre: literary fiction
Themes: sexual assault&rape, grooming of a minor
5. Yerba Buena – Nina LaCour Genre: contemporary romance Themes: death of parent, parental abandonment
6. Aquarium – David Vann Genre: literary fiction Themes: child neglect/abuse, parental (mental) illness, physical violence.
7. The Lightkeepers – Abby Geni Genre: literary fiction Themes: sexual assault and rape, physical violence, attempted murder
8. Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel Genre: literary fiction, sci-fi, post-apocalyptic Themes: pandemic, various losses of family and friends due to illness
9. How High We Go in the Dark – Sequoia Nagamatsu Genre: literary fiction, sci-fi, post-apocalyptic Themes: pandemic, various represenations of loss of family-members, children
and friends due to illness.
Genre: magical realism
Genre: literary horror, deep sea Themes: change/relationship drifting apart after one partner experiences a
2. Wild Spaces – S.L. Coney Gerne: Young adult, Lovecraftian horror. Themes: parental/domestic abuse.
3. Mapping the Interior – Stephen Graham Jones Genre: horror Themes: death of parent, generational trauma and discrimination, Trigger warnings: animal cruelty, discrimination against native Americans.
4. Looking Glass Sound – Catriona Ward Genre: horror/supernatural thriller
Themes: murder, domestic abuse, childhood trauma, paracosm/mythologizing
past trauma, substance abuse & alcholism
5. The Hollow Kind – Andy Davidson Genre: horror, Lovecraftian Themes: substance abuse, generational trauma
Middle-Grade and Childrens Fiction
1. August Isle – Ali Standish Genre: childrens contemporary
Themes: death of friend/family-member, (near) drowning accident
Genre: childrens-/ YA contemporary
Themes: death of parent, death of sibling, (near) drowning accident, anxiety
Genre: childrens horror
Themes: childhood cancer
Genre: childrens contemporary
Themes: death of friend, (near) drowning accident, STEM-interest
Genre: childrens fantasy
Themes: substance abuse, depression, discrimination against Native Americans
Genre: childrens contemporary
Themes: (parental) substance abuse, parental neglect
Genre: middle grade magical realism
Themes: suicide, death of sibling, racism, homophobia, bullying
Young Adult Fiction
1. A Heart in a Body in the World – Deb Caletti Genre: YA contemporary
Themes: PTSD, gun violence, survivors guilt
Genre: YA novel in verse
Themes: death of parents, (near) fatal car-accident
Genre: YA contemporary
Themes: missing sibling, sexual assault of minor (not on page)
Genre: YA magical realism, romance
Themes: sexual assault, homophobia
Genre: YA contemporary
Themes: racism, police violence against people of colour , gunviolence
Genre: YA contemporary
Themes: attempted suicide (brother of protagonist), depression, substance abuse,
(near) drowning accident
Genre: YA contemporary magical realism
Themes: domestic violence
Genre: YA contemporary magical realism
Themes: sexual assault, disordered eating, parental terminal illness
Genre: YA contemporary magical realism
Themes: parental abuse/abandonment, substance abuse
Genre: YA contemporary, sci-fi
Themes: depression, suicide, homophobia