Novels About Death or Loss

These novels feature characters coping with the death of someone close to them. We are shown how they respond physically and emotionally to the loss.

A Death in the Family | James Agee

Jay Follet gets a call late at night from his brother who says their father has had a heart attack. He says goodbye to his wife, Mary, and has a nice moment with her before driving off. We are given some background on their relationship and their religious faith. Jay eventually finds his father’s condition isn’t really serious. The focus of the story is Jay’s son, Rufus.

Annie John | Jamaica Kincaid

Annie, the narrator, grows up in Antigua. She has her first experience with death at age ten. During adolescence, her relationship with her mother becomes strained. The interwoven stories show the mental growth of Annie.

The Accidental Tourist | Anne Tyler

After the death of their son, Macon and Sarah divorce. Macon has to travel for work, and he writes guidebooks for those who have to travel on business but don’t like it. Before a trip, Macon boards his dog at an animal hospital and meets Muriel Pritchett, a woman who is supportive of him. He becomes increasingly isolated, staying at home. He starts to worry about where he’s headed.

As I Lay Dying | William Faulkner

Addie, the matriarch of the Bundren family, is on her deathbed, while her oldest son Cash is building her coffin. She dies soon after. The family is going to respect her request to be buried in her family’s burial ground, so they prepare for the forty mile journey. Friends and neighbors are advising against this difficult trip, but the family goes anyway. It’s narrated by many different people who each give their perspective.

“I could just remember how my father used to say that the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time.”

Read “As I Lay Dying”

The Optimist’s Daughter | Eudora Welty

Laurel McKelva goes to New Orleans when her father, Judge McKelva, is losing his sight. She also meets his new, younger wife, Fay, a selfish and coarse woman. When Judge dies, Laurel and Fay arrange for the funeral. Laurel thinks back on her life.

Kitchen | Mahoko “Banana” Yoshimoto

Mikage loves kitchens of every type. Her grandmother has died, so she is alone. A man she remembers from the funeral, Yuichi, stops by to invite her to his mother’s for dinner. She loves the house’s kitchen, and is intrigued by the mother, Eriko. They invite her to come live with them.

The Red Pony | John Steinbeck

Jodi Tiflin is the son of Carl, boss of a ranch. While growing up, Jodi is given a pony, an old man who wants to die at the ranch stays overnight, and he sees the circle of life. His grandfather visits, and talks about his experience leading people across the plains.

The Sweet Hereafter | Russell Banks

In a small New York town, a bus accident has killed fourteen children. The accident and its after-effects are described by four different narrators–Dolores, the bus driver; Billy, a widower who lost his twins in the accident; Mitchell, a lawyer who starts building a case against the city; and Nichole, a beautiful and smart fourteen-year-old who ends up in a wheelchair.

Three Junes | Julia Glass

The narrative covers the summers of 1989, 1995, and 1999 telling the stories of a widower, his son, and a widowed artist. It begins with Paul McLeod in Greece after the death of his wife, Maureen. He meets a young artist named Fern, whom he is attracted to. He remembers when his wife was sick and his son Fenno came home to visit.

Bone | Fae Myenne Ng

Lila, Ona, and Nina are sisters. Leila has recently married her long time boyfriend. Ona has just commited suicide, jumping off the thirteenth floor of a building. The narrative continues in reverse order before coming back to the suicide and then the days after it. The Leong family are Chinese immigrants; the father, Leon, came to America when he was fifteen. There is some conflict because the daughters are more Americanized than the parents.

Cold Sassy Tree | Olive Ann Burns

Rucker Blakeslee is dealing with the death of his wife, Mattie Lou. After she has been dead only three weeks, he makes an announcement that shocks his family – he is going to marry Miss Love Simpson, a northerner who is kind and free-spirited. There is disapproval from the family and the town. Will Tweedy, the narrator who was fourteen at the time, remembers his grandmother, particularly her final days and funeral. Will has always liked Miss Love; he asks her about the marriage.

White Noise | Don Delillo

Jack Gladney teaches at a college as a Hitler specialist. His wife, Babette, teaches an adult education course in posture. Jack’s thoughts often turn to death. Something toxic is found in their children’s school, resulting in its closure. The family begins to wonder if Babette is taking medication. The family consumes tabloid news, trashy literature, and disaster reports on television. A train hauling a toxic substance derails.

Read “White Noise”

Shizuko’s Daughter | Kyoko Mori

When Yuki is twelve, her mother commits suicide and Yuki finds her on the floor. Her father remarries a year later. Yuki deals with growing up without her mother’s artistic and open influence. She doesn’t receive much support from her father or step-mother.

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