The Austin Chronicle

Hurts So Good

Our top books of 2014 provided pleasures despite the pain

Reviewed by Amy Gentry, January 2, 2015, Arts

Smiling Through the Pain

Who says pain can't be fun? The best reads of 2014 thematized suffering in language so beautiful, they had me wincing with every word. The mascot for this sort of scab-pickery, Leslie Jamison's The Empathy Exams (Graywolf Press), is a collection of thought-provoking and often masterful essays that poke around the edges of our capacity to feel others' pain. It's the definition of a haunting read; I've considered removing certain chapters and burning them with a little sage. Another notable book from Graywolf, the whisper-thin story collection Karate Chop by Danish writer Dorthe Nors, showcased a comic sensibility as dry and bleak as a pile of broken boards.

Even The Paying Guests (Riverhead), the long-awaited sixth novel by British writer Sarah Waters, was darker than her usual fare. Waters fans always expect a twist, but this deftly psychological tale of a repressed spinster finding love in World War I ravaged London takes its violent turn after a harrowing scene of self-induced abortion that will stick with me for a long time.

For inventive language, two debuts about young, masochistic women stood out. Irish-British writer Eimear McBride's experimental novel A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing (Coffee House Press) is narrated by a depressed girl struggling to find her voice in a visceral, singsong language that almost has to be read aloud to be understood. Hardly pleasant, it is nevertheless undeniably, gut-punchingly beautiful. Finally, Dallas writer Merritt Tierce's waitressing novel Love Me Back (Doubleday), my top pick of the year, can suck all the air out of your lungs in a single paragraph and leave you gasping for more. Now that's a torture report.

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