How can a book be defined as life-affirming? The Oxford Dictionary describes the expression life-affirming as “having an emotionally or spiritually uplifting effect." For me, the very act of reading is uplifting: reading is about making connections with characters; plots and stories; it is a way to escape and view the world through another lens. Reading elicits a range of emotions as we encounter characters we love, who make us laugh and also those who we hate, filling us with irritation and rage. What matters most is relationship - about having those moments of: “I feel exactly the same!” or “I thought I was the only one!” What can be more satisfying than putting a book down, knowing you have truly related with another.
A life-affirming book provokes tears of laughter and joy, but also brings cries of anger and frustration. My all-time favourite books are the ones which draw out human nature; exposing the defects, flaws and horrors of what it is to be alive, and yet still somehow manage to show that life is dynamic, beautiful, colorful and an adventure to be lived. Here are my top life affirming novels:
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
This wonderful story is remarkable in every possible way; from its darkly beautiful illustrations contributed by Jim Kay, to the great big touching metaphor that forms the backbone of the story. The tale is of Conor O'Malley, a 13-year-old boy isolated and frightened who is repeatedly visited by a monster whilst his mother is dying. The story explores notions of letting go, accepting and allowing yourself to experience difficult emotions like anger and death, and above all it is about the beautiful, unshakable love between mother and son. A Monster Calls is a beguiling and heart-rending tale, tender and eviscerating in turn.
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnet
“Being alive is magic” – these are the words proclaimed by sickly Colin who regains his health, spirit and lust for life by the arrival of his sour-faced cousin Mary Lennox. With nothing to do in the dreary house, Mary spends her time outdoors and soon discovers a secret garden which has been hidden for years. Together with Dickon, they discover the life-giving secret garden, which restores them physically and spiritually. This book reinstalls a joy and love for nature and the outside.
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
The basis of the story is of Hazel, who has cancer, who meets Augustus at a cancer-self-help group and their subsequent blossoming romance. Beautifully written and breathtaking, sometimes humorous in tone, but also a philosophical bent in which it discusses the meaning of life and death. Like its film adaptation, it’s pretty depressing, but equally life-affirming in the way that it demonstrates how even a short life can be experienced in its fullest. It enthrals, entertains and educates and offers a talking point for young people to explore and discuss important philosophical issues.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
The four endearing sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March, are constantly encouraged by their mother to be the best versions of themselves. As they experience love and loss they learn to become 'little women'. Although the characters seem a little too perfect to be real at times, after reading it time and time again I always feel inspired to make up for my own shortcomings. Their coming of age tale is truly timeless and an inspirational anecdote of the importance of family.
Railway Children by E. Nesbit
What can be more heartening than following the adventures of the delightful railway children? The book is rich in charm; the characters, setting and writing create an unforgettable piece of fiction, which not only encapsulates the essence and celebration of childhood, but also the delights of adventure and simplicity of what it is to be a child. The story follows the three distinctive personalities of Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis who move to the country after the mysterious disappearance of their father. They discover the railway which soon becomes a second home to them with the kindly station porter Perks for company. The story is packed with the children’s mini adventures and the poignant ending is an absolute tear-jerker. This uplifting classic can be read again and again, and never cease to lose its magical charm.
by Charlotte Bronte
“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” Charlotte Bronte’s unconventional heroine; plain Jane is synonymous with life-affirming. Jane is a symbol of feminism, a self-willed and resilient character who overcomes her troubled, impoverished past to flourish into an independent, educated woman and marrying the man of her dreams, Mr Rochester, demonstrating that our circumstances shouldn’t define our futures.
I am sure that there are many more life-affirming books out there waiting to be discovered or yet to be written – what are your top uplifting, feel-good reads?
Written by Esther Dark