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  • Writer's pictureEricka Marie

Why do I love painful books?: My Top 3 Books of 2020

This is a safe space, right? I need a place to talk about all the books that made me feel too much in 2020. The events (that shall not be named) of last year, allotted me the time to explore and diversify my reading. These books brought me nothing but pain but they somehow made it to my top reads for 2020:

1. My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell TWs: emotional manipulation, pedophilia, predatory grooming, rape, sexual assault, suicide

An excerpt from Goodreads: Exploring the psychological dynamics of the relationship between a precocious yet naïve teenage girl and her magnetic and manipulative teacher, a brilliant, all-consuming read that marks the explosive debut of an extraordinary new writer. 2000. Bright, ambitious, and yearning for adulthood, fifteen-year-old Vanessa Wye becomes entangled in an affair with Jacob Strane, her magnetic and guileful forty-two-year-old English teacher.

My thoughts: I read this book during peak quarantine. I had the time to dive into and honestly speaking, I would have made the time for it. This book was… engrossing but in the worst way. I rated this book a 5/5 but at no point did this book bring me joy or peace. It riddled me with frustration, sadness, and empathy. It was extremely difficult for me to read but I could not stop. This dark read introduced to me something I hadn’t read yet.

“I wonder how much victimhood they will grant a girl like me”

Vanessa was complex. She is the victim that we as readers could not fully understand. I would imagine people feeling frustration and anger towards her decisions. Some may have found difficulty rooting for a victim who did not see herself as such. Jacob was the villain we know all too well. He was easy to hate but this book was less about him and more about how his abuse transformed Vanessa. Russell chronicles the life of a victim and we are able to have a realistic look of how trauma, if left unaddressed, can truly fester in the life of someone. Towards the end of the novel, I felt no closure because Vanessa’s journey is life-long. Her journey resonated with me on a personal level. I think of the people I know and the children I have served and I wonder how they will cope with the cards they were dealt as children. From the start of the book to the finish, I felt like I was holding a breath I could never release. Despite the pain it caused me, this book was my favorite of 2020 but I will never read it again.

2. The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi

TWs: homophobia, transphobia, depression, violence, depictions of sexual assault/rape

An excerpt from Goodreads: What does it mean for a family to lose a child they never really knew? One afternoon, in a town in southeastern Nigeria, a mother opens her front door to discover her son’s body, wrapped in colorful fabric, at her feet. What follows is the tumultuous, heart-wrenching story of one family’s struggle to understand a child whose spirit is both gentle and mysterious.

My thoughts: If reading about my number one book of the year brought you sadness, take a break before you read about this one. When I compiled this list, I thought about the books that I surprisingly could not stop thinking about after I finished reading it. The Death of Vivek Oji was a short but powerful read. Some moments brought me some joy but overall it was a distressing ride. This was a Book of the Month pick for me and the second book I’ve read by Akwaeke Emezi. They do an excellent job depicting the complexities of the lives of marginalized groups and their families.

“If nobody sees you, are you still there?”

Throughout this novel, readers were on a journey to find out the mysterious circumstances behind Vivek’s death but about Vivek’s clandestine and intricate identity. Many aspects of this book may leave you… uncomfortable. It explores the dynamics of family and friendship as well as the challenges of being yourself in a place where you can’t be. I can’t sum up this book in a way I could others. All in all, I cried and I want you to cry too. Totally kidding, please heed trigger warnings.

3. The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

TWs: depression, suicide, drug use

Excerpt from Goodreads: Somewhere out beyond the edge of the universe there is a library that contains an infinite number of books, each one the story of another reality. One tells the story of your life as it is, along with another book for the other life you could have lived if you had made a different choice at any point in your life. While we all wonder how our lives might have been, what if you had the chance to go to the library and see for yourself? Would any of these other lives truly be better?

My thoughts: Nora is “living” what’s seemingly a lack luster life. She’s questioned her decisions with the past and has been given an opportunity to live out the different choices she could have made. What she finds is that maybe she was never meant to have a “perfect” life.

“The impossible, I suppose, happens via living. Will my life be miraculously free from pain, despair, grief, heartbreak, hardship, loneliness, depression? No. But do I want to live? Yes. Yes. A thousand times, yes.”

The concept behind this book is what drew me in. I read this book in December and it was very timely as we approached the new year. We often spend so much time thinking about the “what ifs” of life that we neglect the “what is”. I often thought of myself and how I spend hours thinking about everything I could’ve done differently versus dedicating the time towards working on what could be. This book solidified the concept for my next tattoo, the words: "What is will not always be". This reminds me that the good times won't last forever so enjoy them while you can but if the same concept of time applies to bad times, the quote encourages me that the bad times have an expiration date as well. I would recommend this book to everyone.

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