What makes a book dark, gritty, and intense?
It can be a lot of things, but here are some elements that fit the description for me:
- Deep character studies
- A stong sense of place
- Nuanced themes within major plot points
- Incredible writing
- Sticks with me long after I’ve finished the last page
Whenever I pick up a new book I always wonder if its going to be the one that stays with me. Is this the book that’s going to grip me and never let go? Or will it become one of the many forgettable stories that years down the road, you struggle to recall one single detail.
I love a dark, gritty, intense book that sticks with you.
Here are some recommendations if you enjoy that same type of book!
All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood (2016) – At just eight years old, Wavy is forced into being an “adult”. Daughter to meth dealers, she tries her best to raise her little brother and continue to attend school. After witnessing one of her parent’s friends crash his motorcycle, the book takes a dark turn.
Listen, this book truly made me ponder what I think is acceptable bookish content because it’s a story about a little girl (remember I mentioned that Wavy is only eight years old?) and a grown man falling in love. I know this is a dealbreaker for a lot of people, as it should be, but somehow, I coulnd’t put it down, and I still can’t stop thinking about it all these years later (I read it in 2016).
This book pushes all the boundaries, and since I’ve read it, I’m continually reminded of Bryn Underwood’s response to some of the criticism surrounding this book: “If you only read books that make you feel safe and comfortable, what’s the point of reading?”
Marlena by Julie Buntin (2017) – When Cat (15 years old) and her family move to a small, desolate town in Minnesota, she is desparate for connection and friendship. When she meets her neighbor, Marlena, Cat is quickly caught up in her web.
This coming-of-age book explores teenage frienship and the way those friendships shape us for the rest of our lives. It also has themes of loss and regret, as well as class privilege, poverty, and addiction.
Long Bright River by Liz Moore (2020) – Immersed in a world of addiction and mysterious disappearances of street girls, Mickey searches for her missing sister, Kacey. Alternating between past and present, we gain a full understanding of what brought the sister’s to their current place.
With a few twists and turns (some I saw coming and others I didn’t), this book is more of a literary mystery than thriller. It was nuanced and thought-provoking and I couldn’t put it down!
Sugar Run by Mesha Maren (2019) – After Jodi is unexpectedly released from prison after 18 years, she longs to return to her home – a small town set in the mountains of West Virginia. On parole and desperate to start a new life, she is immediately confronted with troubles. From the girl she falls in love with to dealing with addiction problems, some people are just destined for a hard life. And no matter what Jodi’s intentions are behind her choices, she always ends up on the wrong side of them.
This book has everything I love in a story – slow, methodical writing; deep, insightful character study; and a healthy dose of drama. I saw so many mixed reviews on this one – and honestly, mostly negative – and I’m wondering why. I loved it so much! It took a little to get into because the writing was loose and had a tendency to skip scenes without transitions, but I will never understand why this book didn’t get way more praise and attention. It’s a totally immersive read that sucked me in from the first page. It’s dark and lonely, and there’s a strong sense of desparity in the setting and the characters that has really stuck with me.
The Line That Held Us by David Joy (2018) – From the first chapter of this book, the intensity was high and what followed is a dark, twisted, and atmospheric story.
When Daryl Moody goes out hunting one night, he accidentially shoots and kills a member of the Brewer family. This family is known for their violence and revenge, so scared of what the Brewers will do, Daryl and his best friend, Calvin, cover up the shooting. As the Brewers seek retribution for the death of their family member, the intensity is high and what follows is a dark, twisted, and atmospheric story.
A fairly short novel by bookish standards, it packed quite the punch! With immersive writing and descriptive details – both in setting and on character development – David Joy is the true master of this sub-genre.
My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent (2017) – My Absolute Darling challenged my thinking. Everything about Turtle’s upbringing is cringe-worthy – her relationship with her father, the fact that she’s familiar with a wide assortment of guns and how to use them, and the extreme poverty of her living situation. While this book is extremely controversial (think All the Ugly and Wonderful Things controversial – see above), its strength is in the characters. Turtle is multi-faceted and her father, even though he may be one of the most despicable characters ever written, is well-developed. A lot of the story itself is disconnected and unfinished, but Turtle is a character that I can’t forget, no matter how hard I try.
Gun Love by Jennifer Clement (2018) – Pearl and her mother live in a car in a trailer park in Florida. They eat foods that don’t require refrigeration and spray down the car with Raid every night. Pearl doesn’t have a birth certificate; her mother is literally her only family.
This is a gritty, coming-of-age story that draws attention to society’s obessession with guns and violence.
Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett (2016)- Written totally different than the books mentioned above, this is my wild card contribution to the post. I wouldn’t descibe it as dark and gritty in the same way, but the subject matter is heavy and intense in its own right.
This is a book about mental illness and the effects it has on one family. Haslett tackles the complexity of the issue with grace and compassion; judgment is not a part of this book. This story is a slow burn that builds up to an explosive ending. The reader is left with just as many questions at the end of the book as they were when they started: what is a life worth? Can you save a loved one from the depths of mental illness and the various layers associated with that description – the illness itself and/or the medical costs? What are the benefits or costs of prescription medication? The topics are important and extremely timely in our present day.
What’s your number one book recommendation for something dark, gritty, and intense?
(Because of the dark nature of these books, please be aware that trigger warnings abound!)