It was unlikely that the ending was going to be a happy one, given the title of the most recent book I read was Extinctions. After all, isn’t an extinction the unhappiness ending of all?
While the book, which centred on Frederick Lothian and his life in a retirement village (a label that he distained, like so many things in his life), and his reflection on his wife and children. There is much sadness in these musings, which Frederick is only, finally, willing to delve into when they are long past.
Amid the sadness, there is some embryonic hope for joy. Frederick’s loneliness diminishes to a degree when he meets the kindly but straight-talking Jan, and he begins to recognise and attempt to remedy the pain he has caused to his family. It is a redemption of kinds, or at least the start of it.
Yet, ultimately, it is hard to ignore the underlying sorrow in Frederick’s life, both of his making and for which his is not responsible. It is no fairytale and Jan is no knight in shining armour, even though she is a blessing for Frederick.
And so it is in many books – there are not always tight resolutions, no ‘baddies’ brought to justice, no atonement or sadness wiped completely from memory. Even those who experience redemption cannot undo the past, or look to the future with unabated happiness.
These endings of hope, tainted with sorrow, often appear in books of war. However joyful the end of battle, bodies lay strewn across the pages, and cannot be forgotten. The survivors might celebrate their survival, and find joy after misery, yet that they always carry the memory of their past and the past of their countries is implicit.
This is the case in The Book Thief, in which Liesel witnesses the destruction of her country and so many of those who she loves. She is a survivor, but one who is bound to continue to suffer from her past, however peaceful her future might be.
In Barracuda, Christos Tsiolkas writes of the shame and disappointment of a young swimmer. Years later, Daniel Kelly finds peace, yet it is hard to forget his previous battles.
While the ending of The Choke was one of hope for a better future for the central character of Justine, it was difficult for the reader to describe the ending as an entirely happy one. It would be nice to imagine that, after Justine had experienced so much trauma and pain, her life would be one of unabated happiness, yet it is clear that her history cannot be completely erased.
In Our Souls at Night, two neighbours find companionship with each other, and reflect on their past lives. However, while their friendship provides comfort to Addie and Louis, it is not without its pains. Their families are suspicious of the relationship and force them to make choices between their current happiness and their pasts. It is clear that the past has a way of standing in the way of future joy. They also live with the regrets and sadnesses of their pasts – of the deaths of those they loved and their own past behaviour of which they are not always proud.
In her books, Anything is Possible and Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Stout creates complex characters whose lives and attitudes are an amalgam of the many people and events that have shaped them, and there is an underlying sense of sadness. It might be in the truth of insult a student throws at her careers advisor or a revelation about the perpetrator of a past wrong that shaped the life of another character.
Heather Morris describes the sense of the past colouring the present and the future in The Tattooist of Auschwitz: “His memories of home have been tainted by his memories of the war. Everything and everyone he cared for is now only visible to him through glasses darkened by suffering and loss.”
The idea of a difficult past colouring future joy is one that recurs in many of these books, whether it is a violent or neglectful father who shaped the behaviour of his children, impacting on many who come after him, or a war, which continues to impact on a city or population on which it was waged.
Reality is no different – even in the happiest of lives, some sadness is inevitable. There is the ultimate sadness of the death of loved ones, and so many other causes of disappointment, humiliation and regret. While there might be an overwhelming sense of optimism and contentment, some of life’s sadnesses are inescapable, and can change the way that we view our present. Past losses make present joys bittersweet, while even in new successes, the doubts and shame of past failures can dwell.
And so, even the happiest endings in books are not without a touch of sadness about what has gone before. Even when the baddie gets his or her comeuppance, the reality of the original crime remains. In peace, the cost of war remains. Unfortunately, in life and in literature, there is no happily ever that doesn’t hold within it the remnants of a more complex past.