I have prepared a list of my favourite books which explore a theme of loneliness, solitude, and aloneness in various forms and aspects of daily life. The stories mentioned below portray loneliness related to the contemporary urban existence, traumatic experiences caused by war or displacement, being an outsider within a society, being an introvert in the extroverted world, or a deeply emphatic soul. I have also tried to include books from different corners of the world: Lebanese, Ukrainian, English, Bengali-American, Portuguese, Turkish, Scottish, French, Polish and Israeli.
If you don’t have time to read all of them, then I would encourage you to read the first two books on the list or read the description of both and then choose the one you fancy more.
1 An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine
An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alemaddine tells a story of a 72-year-old woman, Aaliya who lives in Beirut. She is a recluse who lives her life through literature. It is a portrayal of an older woman who looks back at her life and tries to determine whether her life was meaningful, whether her life was ‘necessary’. This tale is a confession of an introvert, a love letter to literature. This book is full of reflections on loneliness, disconnection, treatment of the outsiders by the society. We travel with Aaliya across the present and the past, through the history of her family, her failed marriage. The complex and rich history of Lebanon provides a background for this story. An Unnecessary Woman is full of the nuanced musings, inner monologues on life of a woman who has decided to defy social norms to live in accordance with her true herself. The portrayal of the solitude, and its importance in every introvert’s life is shown beautifully throughout the entire story. “I prefer slow conversations where words are counted like pearls, conversations with many pauses, pauses replacing words.” FULL REVIEW
2 Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri
“Solitude: it’s become my trade. (…) It’s a condition I try to perfect”. Written in forty-six short vignettes, Whereabouts portrays daily wanderings and inner workings of the narrator’s mind who is a solitary unnamed woman in her mid -40s working as a teacher and living in the unnamed city in Italy. Whereabouts is an exploration of urban solitude, alienation, loneliness, growing old, with the narrator’s beautiful ruminations on the meaning of living a solitary life, inspired by the locations of daily errands. The narrator is a very sensitive and astute observer of other people’s words, emotions, and gestures. At the restaurant, she eats alone with other people also eating alone. At the doctor’s office, she notices a woman, who appears to be twenty years older than her, also waiting alone, with no husband, no companion to support her which makes the narrator reflect on her own future in a few decades from now on. Throughout the pages of Whereabouts, the narrator attempts to locate her own place in the world, she is in the quest of an identity as well as emotional home where her body and soul can sense they belong. This book exudes some sort of yearning for a new attachment without a burden of geographical and cultural frontiers which makes Whereabouts truly universal in terms of the protagonist’s depicted emotions and thoughts. That presence of aloneness on the pages of Whereabouts is very soothing for the reader. In my view, Whereabouts is a profoundly life-affirming book about tranquility that solitary existence might offer in the similar way how our narrator experiences it – someone who lives a peaceful life, with no family of her own, deeply aware of her loneliness, but not burden by it. FULL REVIEW
3 Madonna in a Fur Coat by Sabahattin Ali
‘When we walked side by side, did I not feel his humanity most profoundly? Only now did I begin to understand why it was not always through words that people sought each other out and came to understand each other.’ In ‘Madonna in a Fur Coat’, Ali portrays the deepest corners of the human soul. Ali’s writing offers probably one of the best description of a sensitive man, deeply emphatic soul. ‘Madonna in a Fur Coat’ is a pure definition of ‘melancholy’ and yearning for missed opportunities in life. We follow the life of Raif during the 1920s and 1930s while he lives in Berlin, Istanbul and Ankara. While in Berlin, he meets a Jewish woman, Maria and they become the loves of each other’s lives. Their love, at times, appears to be more platonic, than romantic; marred by the complexity of their respective backgrounds, social norms, and by the struggles caused by the mundanity of life. It is a bond of two delicate souls – outsiders, although very different in many respects. As time passes, Raif lives a solitary existence in some sense despite the fact having a family of his own; he keeps himslef to himself. In the later part of his life he is alone even though surrounded by people. It’s a story about living in a prejudiced society which rewards certain egoistic behavioural patterns, and humiliates the ones who do not conform to its norms and want to live according to their own values of compassion, equality and kindness. Ali’s words on solitude have the ability to penetrate readers’ soul in the most exquisite manner. Ali was a magician of words; he added a sprinkle of stardust to the seemingly mundane story and created a profoundly moving tale of the most basic human emotions: love and solitude. This book is a real gift to the human thought.
4 Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ by Gail Honeyman
“If someone asks you how you are, you are meant to say FINE. You are not meant to say that you cried yourself to sleep last night because you hadn’t spoken to another person for two consecutive days. FINE is what you say.” Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine constitutes a meditation about isolation and loneliness among young people in the modern world. Gail Honeyman said somewhere that what inspired her to write this book was reading an article about the experience of one young woman who said that she did not speak to anyone from the time she left work on Friday evening until she was back at work on Monday morning. This book will resonate with anyone who has experienced loneliness or feeling of being isolated or abandoned in their lives, while loneliness does not necessarily mean something negative. This is also a story about people who are introverts and treat them as ‘equal’ to the socially accepted extroverts in the Western world. This book is a soul-soothing gift from its author which can contribute to some normalisation of loneliness, aloneness and being an introvert as a way of life. One has to remember that often we can live with others, be surrounded by many people, but still feel lonely and isolated.
5 Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier
Night Train to Lisbon delights with the written word, very vivid descriptions of the places and characters. The author takes us on a long but a wonderful journey full of thoughts and insightful analysis on death, loneliness, courage and friendship looking at the surrounding world through the prism of many people and from a different time perspective. The protagonist, Raimund Gregorius, is a professor of classical languages at the college in Bern who one day abandons his old life to set out on a train journey to Lisbon. He carries with him a book written by Amadeu de Prado, a Portuguese doctor whose writings explore the ideas of loneliness, death, friendship and loyalty. These notes introduce a philosophical dimension into the narrative which echo Gregorius’s own thoughts and reflections. This book is used by him as a tool for self-discovery and journey inwards. As he speaks to the people who knew Prado, Gregorius feels he has a lot in common internally with Prado. I would recommend this book to a sensitive reader who enjoys philosophical meanderings about the meaning of life, literature, existentialism, ideas, words and identity. It is not an easy read, there are not many dialogues, there is no staggering action but it is a compelling prose and a wonderful exploration of solitude and loneliness.
6 The Lost Shore by Anna Langfus
The Lost Shore[Les Bagages de Sable] has at its centre a Polish-Jewish refugee woman called Maria, a Holocaust survivor, who tries to build her life again in France after her entire family had been exterminated during the Holocaust (similarly to author’s own experience). Langfus explores the subject of the suffering of a singular woman, a survivor who tries to learn to live but she is unable to. The Lost Shore depicts internal struggles to overcome memories of loss, cruelty, death and at the same time the impossibility to portray the past in order to live again. Maria must deal with a lot of indifference from people including her own extended family who wants her not to mention her experiences during the Shoah. At some point, Maria meets a much older man who initially seems to care for her well-being. Maria exists in the world inhabited by the ghosts of the past and finds impossible to relate with others or rather others are unable to relate to her pain. She also questions the true meaning of her relationship with the older man and if it is only her youth that was attractive to this man and not her as an individual. Maria asks herself if she were an older woman, would she receive the same level of attention? In the end, an old man becomes ill, and his estranged wife comes back. Maria is asked to leave, and she is yet again alone in this world in a state of continuous numbness and no hope. Langfus’ writing is lucid and delicate, multi-dimensional with layers of unsurpassed depth and profound emotional maturity. FULL REVIEW
7 Lucky Breaks by Yevgenia Belorusets
Lucky Breaks by Ukrainian writer, Yevgenia Belorusets is a collection of vignettes accompanied by a series of black and white photos taken by the author herself.This series of short stories, originally written in Russian and published in 2018 explores the lives of Ukrainian women, displaced, forced to seek refuge in other parts of Ukraine as a result of the war in Eastern Ukraine which started in 2014. Some stories take place in Kyiv, some in a warzone, and others in the territories occupied by the Russia-backed separatists. All these snapshots of a singular life presented in those stories focus on how traumatic historical events transform one’s everyday life, how military and political turmoil upends the lives of the ‘ordinary’ women who endured so many senseless losses. We get a glimpse into what’s now and what’s been. The book centres on women – women from all walks of life, all backgrounds, all ages. Many of the protagonists are painfully lonely in their despair to rebuild their lives in Kyiv and other parts of western Ukraine, longing for relationships, love but often sticking to their wartime habits. Their daily existence amounts to the mere survival in the ruins of war, being displaced and out of place, without social network, with no social status, with no ability to articulate profound trauma that penetrates every aspect of their lives. They alone in their existence. They rarely receive any substantial support for their permanent psychological wounds. In order to exist they must go to work, to pay bills. They are all traumatised souls, ‘ordinary women’, without financial security and comfort, without any safety net. In all cases portrayed in Lucky Breaks the issue of class and economic status is crucial and profoundly impacting daily existence of these women. In one of the stories, the protagonist mentions that we, as a society, love celebrating women but only a certain type of women. We often forget about the women ‘in some backwater, small places, remote places’ – they are often invisible, especially older women, disabled women, single women. FULL REVIEW
8 The Teacher by Michal Ben Naftali
“The greatest mystery of my life: living in the aftermath.” The Teacher by the Israeli writer, Michal Ben Naftali is an exceptional and profoundly moving novel.The Teacher tells a story of a woman, Elsa Weiss, born in 1917, a Holocaust survivor from Eastern Europe who after WWII ends up living in Israel working as a high school teacher until she commits suicide in 1982 at the age of 65. It is a story shared by many Holocaust survivors – I read that the author of the book based Elsa’s life on the person she knew in her real life. The Teacher is an intense exploration of trauma, survivor’s guilt, loneliness, finding one’s place in the world, learning how to exist or rather just how to survive, the memory and how we perceive and remember people in our life. Elsa Weiss is an enigma, her life is an enigma – she left no trace of her life for others to explore. We learn about Elsa Weiss from the perspective of her former student who tries to trace Elsa’s life and learn more about her former teacher thirty years after Elsa jumps to her death from the roof of the building she lived in Tel Aviv. Elsa Weiss felt abandoned through her entire adult life with an overwhelming sense of orphanhood, living in fear of forgetting her loved ones. It is a story of a survivor whose name is not recorded in any history book, nor in any journal nor memoir; a story of those whose life faded from the living memory, of those with no photos of their faces preserved for the future generations; of those who were busy surviving in a new country, busy assimilating, existing, moving forward; of those who are invisible to others; of those without possessive determiners on their grave’s inscription: they are no one’s mother, father, sister or bother; of those who do not wish to be remembered. FULL REVIEW
9 Fresh Water for Flowers by Valerie Perrin
Fresh Water for Flowers is a moving tribute to the resilience of human spirit This book hugs YOU, offers comfort and numerous moments of tenderness, as well as it evokes the spirit of profound emotions filled with many wonderful references to the French music and literature. Fresh Water For Flowers is a tale about difficult love, mature love, grief, loneliness, god, death, the absence of those whom we love, relationship between people and their animal companions. There are many insightful observations about relationships between parents and their adult children, also about finding love at the later stage in life. This tale evolves around a small graveyard in a small French town, Bourgogne. We meet an array of interesting, nuanced characters, including our main protagonist, Violette. The story of Violette’s life is slowly revealed to us through her own words or through the interconnectedness with the lives of other people: Violette’s difficult childhood, being born with nothing, her tragic marriage to Philippe, her daughter, her life working as a bartender, then as a level crossing keeper and finally her life as a cemetery caretaker. At some point Violette says that others speak about her life as though she did not exist, as though she was a problem to be solved, not a person; as though she was absent from her own story. Throughout her life she was often diminished by others, degraded, mistreated, and looked down upon. Violette has become one of my favourite characters. Despite multiple tragedies and hardships in her life, she remained extremely sensitive, delicate, thoughtful, non-judgmental in her relationships with others. Violette is a great observer of human fragility and relationships with enormous empathy towards those she encounters. Fresh Water For Flowers by Valérie Perrin will provide a reader with many moments of comfort, bliss, and a real reading delight. This is one of these rare books which soothes one’s soul.
10 A Start in Life by Anita Brookner
“Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature”. A Start in Life evolves around the story of 40-year-old Ruth Weiss whom we follow in London, Oxford, and Paris. She looks back at her life in order to understand why she feels so unhappy with her existence. She analyses her childhood, her relationship with her parents and people she has chosen to surround herself with and her career. The theme of how the external circumstances might shape one’s existence and if an individual can do anything to change it prevails here. Even when given a chance to change the course of her life, Ruth is unable to do so – as life is not simple; it is nuanced and multifaceted. To me, this is a very life-affirming novel depicting a mature, independent woman reflecting on her life and understanding that there is no perfect existence; there are regrets in life but it does not mean that the life does not have a value. Loneliness, solitude, the position of single women in the society as they get older, complex, and multi-layered family relationships, including the ones between older children and their elderly parents is the themes in Brookner’s novel. Anita was a meticulous observer of human nature and it is reflected in her writing; A Start in Life is a detailed study of a human character. The ordinariness of Brookner’s protagonists like Ruth is typical for her writing – these are not heroes; these are everyday people trying to make the best out of their existence. Anita often limns in her novels a nuanced view on the mundanity of human life and the expectations that the family and the society impose on an individual. Brookner’s style is beautiful as well as strangely elegant, she is very careful with her words; every sentence, every punctuation mark has its meaning or preferably many meanings. If you love BEAUTIFUL, MULTI-LAYERED and GENTLE prose filled with musings on the mundanity of life and loneliness, I do highly recommend you read a few books by Anita Brookner. Her writing will bring you a sense of solace, peacefulness, as well as an understanding that you are not alone in your everyday struggles through the ordinariness of your daily existence.
An interesting selection! Thanks for this!
Thank you! 🤍🙏🤍🙏🥰
As ever, you are most welcome! 🙂 🤗