What Makes a Book Emotionally Gripping?

I’ve just read two books that left my guts in a tangle, so emotionally wrenching were they. The third, in comparison, although perfectly competent and also in the same ‘genre’, was comparatively easier to read, process and distance myself from. So I started wondering what kind of book gives me more of a vertiginous emotional ride?

The Incredible Hulk rollercoaster, Florida. From culturaltravelguide.com
The Incredible Hulk rollercoaster, Florida. From culturaltravelguide.com

In no particular order, this is what comes to mind instantly:

1) Plot: I like my fair share of twists, but I’m not talking unputdownable five thrills a page plotting here. I’ve read books like that in one night and then forgotten about them the next day. Rather, it’s the subject: something about children suffering will always punch me hard in the stomach. I also commiserate with women going through emotional turmoil, depression, betrayal, isolation and revenge. I always find the plight of immigrants disturbing and fascinating: people who have lost everything or who are willing to risk anything to start over again in a country that doesn’t really want them.

2) Style: There is something about the first person POV and being inside a character’s head which is very compelling. Especially if that person clearly has a lot of ‘issues’ and you’re not sure if they are a reliable narrator or not – but then, who is? We all create our own versions of the story. I also like a more reticent writing style, where not everything is spelled out for you (sometimes several times within a chapter), where you have to read between the lines. I like paragraphs where every single sentence counts, sentences in which each word has its part to play. Nothing is wasted and you are forced to pay attention. I’m not offended by frankness, violence, swearing or sex if it serves the purpose of the story. I really dislike gratuitous and repetitive violence (and all of the above if it serves little purpose).

3) Character: I’ve said before that ‘likeability’ is not my main condition for appreciating a character. I always plump for ’roundness’, being believable, memorable, a world unto themselves, and having a coherent and unique voice. In real life we meet far too many boring, bland people who all merge into the background after a while. In fiction I want to meet those larger than life characters that will stay with me for years.

So, after this intro, which three books am I talking about? Here they are, in order of emotional dizziness (from strongest to most neutral reaction):

thewomanwhofedKristien Hemmerechts: The Woman Who Fed the Dogs (transl. Paul Vincent)

Based on the real-life story of Michelle Martin, the wife and accomplice of notorious Belgian serial killer and rapist of the 1990s Marc Dutroux, this is a fictional recreation of her possible thought processes while in prison (with her release date approaching). This is the kind of book that you cannot really ‘like’ – the word is too weak to describe the powerful feeling of repulsion and pity that it evokes in you.

Gritty and sexually explicit (the CleanReader would have a field day with the text), told in the first person entirely from the woman’s point of view (here renamed Odette) it repulsed and attracted me in equal measure. Which is probably the writer’s intention, as it helps to put us inside the mind of a woman locked in a very disturbing relationship. The title comes from a well-known and disturbing fact in the case: while her husband was imprisoned for a minor offence, Martin fed the dogs at his home, but not the two girls he had locked in his cellar. Was she not aware of their existence, did she believe they were already dead or was she too afraid to go down in the cellar, as she later claimed? And if that is the case, does this woman deserve a second chance or is she an irredeemable monster? The real Michelle Martin was released a couple of years ago (she lives in a convent under close supervision of the nuns), a fact which provoked outrage and bitter recriminations in Belgium.

The Flemish author is known for her provocative writing and this book is no exception. It addresses all our prejudices and facile judgements head on. It does not sugarcoat or excuse behaviour, but it provides an alternative explanation which humanises someone whom it is perhaps too easy to label a monster. Odette becomes obsessed with another case of a female murderer: Genevieve Lhermitte, who killed all her five children with premeditation. Yet Lhermitte was labelled mentally unstable and was greeted with pity rather than being demonised.  Nor has Lhermitte been labelled the ‘most hated woman in Belgium’. This comparison becomes very demoralising throughout the book. In fact, generally I would advise to embark upon this book only when you are in a very strong and resilient mental state.

Little sidenote: World Editions has produced a beautiful edition here, with those rounded corners a particularly nice touch.

letyougoClare Mackintosh: I Let You Go

The first chapter already had me close to tears: a mother walking home from school with her child only to watch him being hit by a car just outside their home, with the driver then speeding away. The police investigation starts and those chapters seemed very authentic, especially regarding timelines and how long it takes to solve cases (I then discovered the author has worked in the police previously). The stresses and external temptations in a policeman’s (or woman’s) marriage were also well described.

But this is also the story of Jenna Gray, who has fled to a remote beach in Wales to recover from the trauma of the accident and try to rebuild her life. These chapters puzzled me: I thought I was reading a romance novel, there was just not enough threat or strangeness there initially, except that Jenna tends to be very secretive and overreact in certain instances. Everybody has admired and talked about the big twist that occurs about halfway through, and there are also subsequent twists to the tale. But that wasn’t what made the book compelling to my mind (although I enjoyed them). This story is more about the menacing atmosphere, the claustrophobia, the psychology of power in relationships. There are a couple of improbable elements though, which detracted slightly from my reading pleasure, but overall an emotionally draining read (in a good way).

veranoDaniel Quirós: Eté rouge (Red Summer) (transl. into French by Roland Faye)

Interesting insight into the complicated and inter-related politics of Central and Latin America, with Nicaragua, Argentina and Costa Rica all making an appearance here. Don Chepe is a former guerilla fighter who ‘helped out’ the Sandinistas in Nicaragua but has now retired to a tropical paradise on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. Except the remote fishing village is beset by the relentless heat and dust of the summer… and by the discovery of the body of an Argentinian woman who runs the local bar. She has bequeathed some mysterious documents to her friend Don Chepe and he follows the trail of those documents to discover her murderer.

This is more of a political thriller rather than a straightforward crime fiction, although it starts with a dead body. It is based on real-life events, albeit heavily fictionalised. The suspense element is perhaps less sustained, but it provided me with a window into a country I know very little about. The heat of the dusty summer is almost the main hero of this book, the theme is constantly recurring, and this perhaps creates a certain distance and distaste for politics. Or perhaps it’s because the author (and Don Chepe) refer to the victim as ‘the Argentine’ throughout the entire book, or because Don Chepe himself feels old and disillusioned with politics, or perhaps because it all refers to events which took place a while ago. There is a sense of being a step removed from the action, so ultimately I found it less involving. Perhaps just as well, after the two books above.

What makes a book truly gripping for you? What keeps you turning the pages all night or remember a book long after you finish reading it? What makes you cry (if you do cry at books – I admit ‘The Little Prince’ still gets me every time)?




46 thoughts on “What Makes a Book Emotionally Gripping?”

  1. The first two you mentioned will never be in my TBR pile. Anything to do with hurting kids or even dogs or cats (once quit on a book because a guy killed his own dog) is too much for me to take. But even if the victim is an adult, if the writer takes a voyeur stance on the pain, torture or death they endure, that is not for me.
    A recent book which made me cry was I Am Pilgrim, by Tony Hays. I think part of my response came from the tension, but I was also very moved by a very scary book. But when I say scary, I mean the whole concept was scary.

    1. What I liked about the first two books was that they were more concerned with the aftermath and consequences rather than the actual incident – there are far too many graphic descriptions of pain and torture, I agree with you.
      I don’t usually like spy and international conspiracy thrillers, but I have to admit I Am Pilgrim was a cracking read!

  2. That’s a hard question to answer! I think emotional involvement in some way is the key – I don’t have to like the characters, but I have to believe in them and want to find out what happens to them. The setting and the way the tale is told them become important too – if I don’t connect with the book, I don’t care. I may admire it, but my emotions don’t become involved. I guess it’s a subtle mixture of many things I can’t pin down; because often I don’t get involved with the books I expect to, and vice versa!

    1. Ah, very good point: sometimes you really expect to connect with the book/topic/character when you read the blurb, but you somehow don’t. I suppose that’s when the style of the author doesn’t quite ring true to you. And it’s hard to know which will hit home.

  3. Interesting post, Marina. You’ve ask some thought provoking questions. I rarely cry at books but the one that undid me completely is Philippe Claudel’s Monsieur Linh and His Child – beautiful writing, very involving with a heartbreaking end.

    1. ‘Involving’ seems to be key – some writers do it with a cracking plot, others with a deft characterisation, while others just have a beautiful writing style. If you have all three, it’s even better, but there aren’t many of those…

  4. Plausibility is the key for me, it’s even a deal breaker if I start to doubt. I fear I don’t have the stomach for your Dutroux book though. I don’t consider mysefl a cryer (I didn’t cry at Monsieur Linh, look how tough I am 😉 !), but for fun’s sake I used to search engine on my own blog for “cry” or “tears”, and the titles are: Ethan Canin, Carry Me Across the Water, James Salter, Last Night, Emmanuel Carrère, D’Autres Vies Que La Mienne, Nathan Englander’s Ministry of special cases, Daniel Mendelsohn’s the Lost, Yoko Ogawa, Secrete Cristallization. Well, perhaps i’m a cryer after all!

    1. I wouldn’t have said I was a cryer either, but I’ve been known to sit and stare for ages into the horizon after finishing a book… And now, in my old age, especially after having children, I do have the occasional tears in my eyes…

  5. A thought-provoking post, Marina. One or two of the things you’ve mentioned in your first point are ringing bells with me. What is it about damaged women, lives lived on the edge of an emotional precipice, that we find so compelling?

    1. In my case it is because the line between ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ is so fluid that it’s non-existent, because all these lines are of our own creation and we have all those possibilites within ourselves. As Virginia Woolf says, I am constantly aware that life is a thin strip of pavement over an abyss…

  6. What a very thought provoking post Marian… for me ‘gripping’ used to when a Novel was based on true events – where & how characters faced challenging events for instance crime, survival or expeditions.

    But more lately I’ve been gripped by purely fictional novels where the characters themselves became the key element… alongside both ordinary & extraordinary events – eg Gone Girl, Hausfrau, Disclaimer spring to mind… it’s caring about what happens to them – even when, if not especially when, I don’t like them – that keeps me from putting the book down

    1. It’s funny, isn’t it, how we can still care about what happens to them, even if we don’t really like them? Another book where I really cared deeply about the main character (who’s been branded about as unlikeable) is Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs.

      1. Ooo I’ve got that & Olive Kitteridge too… I’ve heard she’s a fab anti-heroine

  7. Fascinating post, Marina Sofia! I think that for all of us, there are some things that do make a book more gripping and even wrenching. And the books you mention certainly sound intriguing (and it’s easy to see why they moved you). I’ll have to think about what has that same effect on me… I appreciate the ‘food for thought.’

  8. I’m afraid I can’t pinpoint exactly why one book leaves me an emotional wreck, whilst another has no effect on me. The Woman Who Fed the Dogs sounds like something I’d love, but I Let You Go sounds as though it may be too close to home and I’d criticise it for being emotionally manipulative. Strange isn’t it?! I think the problem arises from the fact you say that the hit and run happens in the first chapter. I think I need to get to know a character before reading about something bad happening to them.

    1. I don’t think I Let You Go is manipulative, because the author wrote out of a personal experience of a car crash involving a child, so it is really heartfelt. As in all crime fiction or thrillers, you don’t necessarily get a great deal of detail about a character before something bad happens – it’s one of those genre conventions – but you do get to hear more (and have plenty to empathise with) afterwards.

      1. I don’t read a lot of crime fiction as they often have less character development. If she has personal experience then I’d be interested in reading it – the realism of experience often brings an added spark to literature 🙂

  9. I can’t say why a book touches me more than another but the description of the second book tells me I might have a strong reaction too.
    Injustice or cruelty against helpless people and animals will get to me.

    1. I don’t think I’ve read many books with cruelty against animals (White Fang or Black Beauty in my childhood). Perhaps I’ve unconsciously avoided those books all along?

      1. Lucky you. It happens to me all the time. Last year I didn’t review at least 1/4 of the books I read because of cruelty against animals.

  10. The short answer is – I don’t know! One of the things I’ve discovered from blogging is that I can be praising one book on Monday and criticising another on Wednesday for practically the same things. I say I don’t like really dark books – but sometimes I do. Same with romance. I suppose it comes down to how much the author convinces me – I can live with far-fetched plot points but I must believe in the characters. Emotional truth? Perhaps. I don’t cry often at books, but it’s usually big, angry books if I do – American Pastoral springs to mind.

    1. And that’s what makes it interesting: we are creatures of moods and sometimes books just have to find us at the right time. Or us them.

  11. It’s character driven books for me. I can cope with a short one that is beautifully written but maybe lacking a little in the character department but I can only read so much before my mind wanders. If I really care about what happens to someone, I will wizz through a book. I do find myself tearing up a lot, sometimes it’s the happy bits that really get to me!

    1. Yes, happy bits can be very emotional too! And I do agree with you: no amount of gorgeous prose can make up for flat, uninteresting characters. You have to be ‘invested’ in those characters, whether you love or hate them or everything in between.

    1. Honestly? I think even if I were to read a book a day for the rest of my life, I still wouldn’t get through all my book wishlist. But I don’t allow myself to face that uncomfortable reality too often…

  12. I think I tend to cry more at genre/commercial books than literary fiction, which annoys me because I know I’m being emotionally manipulated but if it’s done well, that’s okay.

    The literary fiction that leaves me broken is usually people (I think I mean women here but maybe they’re the only examples I can think of) whose lives have been unfulfilled. The one that’s forefront in my mind is Tess in Academy Street. That’ such a quiet book but it packs a punch in terms of what she loses out on by making sure she does what she believes to be right by other people.

    1. Oh, dear, not sure I want to read Academy Street now (it was on my list) – sounds like it might be uncomfortably close to my life (or perhaps the lives of a lot of women). And I haven’t ever really stopped to count genre vs. literary books and how emotional I get. I think, if it’s well-written, it doesn’t matter – and there is plenty of genre fiction that is actually quite beautiful prose. But yes, I know what you mean about manipulating the emotions more overtly…

      1. Hmmm, to a point but there’s something in Academy Street that I would have thought is not that common (although maybe I’m deluding myself). Can’t say anything else or I’ll reveal the core of the book.

  13. Strong first sentences are a great way to hook a reader. I remember reading “It was a pleasure to burn”, the opening line from Fahrenheit 451 and loving it instantly. Also I have to like at least one character, be it the good guy or the villain. If I’m not emotionally involved, it’s difficult to go on. First person POV definitely helps. I cry at books frequently – there’s a scene in Little Bee by Chris Cleave that gets me every time.

    1. Oh, yes, a strong, confident beginning does make a difference, draws you in! You feel instantly you are in safe hands. As for POV, I would have said I prefer 3rd person generally (more flexibility), but there is an immediacy with the first person…

  14. I think it is pretty much exactly the points that you have written that make a novel gripping for me too. Gripping in a memorable, emotional sort of way – where you can’t stop thinking about them.

    I find something quick to make me cry or a plot with lots of puzzles can keep me gripped too, but not memorably.

    1. I think you make a very important distinction between the ‘being gripped for a few hours’ and the ‘being memorably gripped’. I’m much fonder of the latter (although even the former requires more writing talent than people generally believe).

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